Everywhere men over 70 – our world is ruled by “a kind of superselection”

When Joe Biden moved into the White House in 2021, he was the oldest US President of all time. At least since the 80-year-old announced that he wanted to run again in 2024, there has always been one topic: his age. At the end of a possible second term, the most powerful man in the world would be 86.

Biden is by no means alone as a man at the top of retirement age. Some of the most important politicians are 70 or older, including the leaders of Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Israel. They play a key role in determining the fate of the world.

The question quickly arises: How fit and flexible in mind can a “man” still be in old age? A remote diagnosis of these powerful men is out of the question, also because a comparatively large amount is known about Biden, for example, but little about the state of health of the Chinese head of state Xi Jinping. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a closer look at the physical and mental condition of this generation.

High social status and good care are crucial

First the good news: Overall, there is probably a higher proportion of fit older men today than there was 20 or 30 years ago, says Frank Sommer, President of the German Society for Men and Health. “Also thanks to medical education.”

Prevention and maintaining physical and mental fitness for a longer period of time are primarily successful for wealthy, well-educated men. However, it is important to implement knowledge about nutrition and exercise. Top politicians and other powerful seniors are likely to stand out in particular, with close-meshed, very good medical care, perhaps with private chefs and trainers. “This is such individual support that the average consumer doesn’t have,” says Sommer.

Which diseases and problems are common in old age

Despite all the advances: with increasing age, the probability of chronic diseases and multiple illnesses increases. A few examples: According to an older report by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) with self-reports from respondents in Germany, more than every second man aged 65 to 74 has high blood pressure, and every fourth man has osteoarthritis.

Around 18 percent are diabetics. Almost 14 percent reported having had a heart attack before. About the same is the proportion of men of this age who have ever been diagnosed with cancer. According to the German Alzheimer Society, the dementia rates for men under 75 in Europe are well below five percent, and from the age of 80 they rise to over ten percent.

In addition to these serious illnesses, there are also health problems such as falls, incontinence and sensory impairments, which increase significantly with age. An example: Between the ages of 71 and 80, about one in three is severely hard of hearing. “Beyond the age of 80, it is more than every second person,” states the Federal Ministry of Research. “From the age of 70 at the latest, we can assume that there has been a relatively extensive loss of muscle strength and muscle mass,” explains Ingo Froboese from the German Sport University in Cologne. The main causes are the generally far too low muscular strain in everyday life and at work. Exceptions are in particular those people over 50/60 who do regular and, above all, intensive muscle training.

Chronological age doesn’t tell everything

However, average values ​​for health in old age are only one aspect. Because experts distinguish between the chronological age – based on the date of birth – and the biological age, which can differ. “To explain it a bit exaggeratedly: There are 75-year-olds who play tennis three times a week and start a second degree. And there are people of the same age who can no longer cross the street without a walker and can’t remember the names of their grandchildren,” says Bernd Kleine-Gunk, President of the German Society for Anti-Aging Medicine. “There are big individual differences.”

The chronological age is just a number, the biological is decisive for the professional performance, says Kleine-Gunk. He is annoyed that the debate about the age of some heads of government is sometimes conducted in a very negative way: “I do see a form of age discrimination there, a labeling of old people. That is not correct.”

In order to stay mentally fit, it is even beneficial to keep doing what you enjoy. “If that’s the job, then it’s a wonderful anti-aging therapy.” The effect is even more positive when people also pursue an inner conviction or vision. That could unleash power. Conversely, there is no greater aging factor for nerve connections in the brain than committing to doing nothing at 65.

The psychologist Hans-Werner Wahl, project manager at the Aging Research Network at Heidelberg University, emphasizes that older state leaders are “a kind of superselection”: You see the fittest here, “exceptions of their species”, certainly not average men. “If you make it this far, it has a lot to do with education. Also with a lot of routines and life experience. You know how to go about things, but also how to save energy and divide up tasks,” says the scientist.

Also a question of historical character?

According to Wahl, however, there are conceivable downsides: the influence of historical experience could possibly become a problem. “The very old come from a different time, so to speak.” Understanding current social needs and developments can therefore be more difficult for old politicians. Or an intensive exchange of generations is necessary if you have power but little knowledge about future generations, their values ​​and preferences.

“I see another risk in the fact that older men in particular could overestimate themselves after a long period of time in positions of power,” says Wahl. “And that after a long time in this role, they tend to fall into patterns that don’t exactly lead to innovative solutions to new problems.” “If something doesn’t go well with old age, it’s quick decisions, quick action.”

Old politicians don’t seem to be a growing phenomenon

Psychiatrist Hans Förstl from the Technical University of Munich wrote in 2020 that the average age of political leaders had not increased significantly in most parts of the world over the past three decades. In the journal “Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders” he also cites examples in which over 90-year-olds held such offices. And lists historical suspected cases in which the mental powers of state leaders apparently decreased. However, Förstl does not want this reappraisal to be understood as a general warning against candidates over 65.

Jean Harris

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