Read the rest of our Happy Birthday, Mr. President package.
Joe Biden is planning on seeking a second term in 2024, which could make him 86 years old at the end of his presidency.
Some Democrats question if Biden really should run again considering his age. A New York Times poll conducted this July with more than 800 Democratic voters shows that 64 percent of them don’t want Biden to be the party’s next presidential candidate.
Would Biden make it to the end of a second term? While aging and its effects are extremely variable across individuals, geriatricians and mortality researchers offered their take on the prospects for an 80-year-old like Biden, who has excellent access to health care and other resources.
Based on the human mortality database from the U.S., men who have recently turned 80 might have a life expectancy of 8.7 more years on average, says Dana Glei, a senior research investigator at Georgetown University who specializes in social demography. It’s important to note that an average does not mean most 80-year-old men will die eight or so years from now: it means that some people will die before that, and some people will die long after the eight-year average. (Another caveat: This estimate is based on 2019 mortality data, before COVID. Glei notes that the drops in life expectancy during the height of the pandemic aren’t a great indicator of where things have shaken out now that we have vaccines.)
Given that Biden is well-off socioeconomically, he may survive even a couple more years beyond eight. “He’s got a lot of income and wealth, and he has the best health care he can possibly have,” Glei says. Biden has the privilege of receiving medical care almost any time of the day from the White House medical unit. In fact, U.S. presidents are accompanied by doctors whenever they travel.
Here are the big killers affecting Americans 80 and older: The No. 1 cause of death is heart disease, which leads to more than 27 percent of deaths, says Glei, referring to pre-pandemic data from 2018. No. 2 is cancer, which drives around 14 percent of the deaths. No. 3 is Alzheimer’s; that accounts for 8 percent of mortality. This is followed by stroke and chronic respiratory diseases, which account for 7 and 6 percent of mortality respectively.
COVID has been major cause for concern for elderly Americans in general. Data from Kaiser Family Foundation states that 75 percent of all COVID deaths through October of this year are of people aged 65 and above. Biden tested COVID-positive this July, and he seems to have coped well, perhaps thanks to his access to Paxlovid. He is also fully vaccinated, and stays up to date on boosters.
Based on Biden’s publicly available health information, he seems to have no major issues. In 1988, Biden was operated on for a brain aneurysm, a condition that causes blood vessels to bulge and produce stroke. In 2003, he also had a gallbladder removal surgery. A health summary that the White House released in 2021 says Biden has atrial fibrillation, or abnormal heart rhythms.
None of these are life-threatening, says David Reuben, a geriatric division chief at the University of California, Los Angeles (who is, of course, not familiar with Biden’s entire medical history). Atrial fibrillation is very common in Biden’s age group, and there are good medicines available to treat it. The condition could increase the likelihood of blood clot formation and stroke, but anticoagulated blood thinners could cut that risk by half, explains Reuben. He also rules out gallbladder removal as a cause of concern. It is a commonly performed procedure for people who suffer from gallstones. And, an aneurysm that occurred to Biden more than 40 years ago is unlikely to cause a problem now, Reuben adds.
Biden holds a very stressful job—experts I spoke to had different opinions on whether this could hurt his life expectancy. Georgetown’s Glei says stress from a hard job might take something off his lifespan. But Carolyn Aldwin, a researcher at Oregon State University who looks at how stress affects the overall health and aging, says she hasn’t seen (from a distance) any serious signs of stress in the president. “Biden is really competent in his job,” says Aldwin. He has gotten major legislation passed and has put together one of the most comprehensive alliances with Ukraine, she notes.
A crucial factor that determines the longevity of people in their 70s and 80s is social support, Aldwin points out. “Clearly, President Biden has a pretty big social network,” she says. He’s also married. In a major survey that Harvard University conducted with more than 100,000 American adults, married men survived longer and healthier than unmarried men. Being married reduces heart disease risk, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Heart.
Biden’s 2021 health care summary says he exercises five days a week. His morning exercise routine includes using the treadmill and weightlifting. Aldwin stresses that exercise is the main predictor for longevity. Johns Hopkins researchers in their 2019 study found that exercise is the best predictor of lifespan in people between 60 and 85 years. Within that group, even age came second.
Being alive is different from having the stamina to perform a difficult job, of course—Biden will have to consider that for himself as 2024 draws closer. But people who are in their 80s now are very different from people in their 80s in the beginning of the 20th Century, says says UCLA’s Reuben. “Now, they are much more robust.”