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Study: Biden slightly healthier, but both presidential candidates may be ‘super-agers’

James Rainey
Los Angeles Times

The presidential candidates and their supporters will likely keep belittling the other guy as a doddering old fool, but a group of geriatric experts say in a new paper that both President Trump and challenger Joe Biden appear to have the physical and cognitive tools to make it through four years in the White House.

In fact, the two candidates’ relative good health and other advantages – parental longevity, access to top-notch health care and abstinence from smoking and drinking – suggest both men are likely to become long-living "super-agers," who thrive well into their 80s, or beyond, according to a draft report written by three medical doctors and four researchers with expertise in public health, survival analysis and statistics.

In this combination photo, president Donald Trump, left, speaks at a news conference on Aug. 11, 2020, in Washington and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del. on Aug. 13, 2020. The conventions, which will be largely virtual because of the coronavirus, will be Aug. 17-20 for the Democrats and Aug. 24-27 for the Republicans. (AP Photo)

Three of the authors of the paper – Stuart Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Dr. Bradley Willcox, director of research in the Department of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Hawaii’s medical school; and UCLA Professor Hiram Beltran-Sanchez, an authority on the demographics of aging – wrote previously about how presidents tend to outlive average Americans.

While the candidates are unusually healthy for their age, Biden is projected to live longer because of his routine fitness regimen, compared with Trump’s relatively sedentary lifestyle and obesity, according to the paper. which will be published in October in the Journal on Active Aging. The journal bills itself as "an indispensable tool for professionals who are dedicated to older adults living as fully as possible regardless of age."

Using actuarial analysis and publicly available data on the health of the two men, the authors project Biden has a 95% chance of surviving a four-year term, while Trump has a 90% chance of completing a second term.

"It is our conclusion that chronological age is not a relevant factor for either candidate running for President of the United States," the authors wrote. "Both candidates face a lower than average risk of experiencing significant health or cognitive functioning challenges during the next four years."

The paper’s projections were based on medical reports issued by the two politicians, public details about their personal habits and statistical models that predict longevity.

There is no public record of either Trump, 74, or Biden, 77, completing a comprehensive cognitive exam. Because no such exam has been reported, the researchers concluded that their personal physicians have no concern about their mental capabilities. (Trump has boasted about passing the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, or MoCA, but it is only a screening test. There is not a single test for dementia, the authors note.)

"We don’t know, for certain, if anything was held back or not, so we have to operate under the assumption that their physicians are releasing accurate information," said Olshansky, the study’s lead author.

Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said Biden and Trump had performed at an "exceptionally high level" cognitively, for men of their age, during their public appearances in the last year.

As white men with high incomes and access to the best doctors, the president and the former vice president have advantages over many other Americans, the paper says. Both had the additional bonus of having one parent live into the 80s and the other into the 90s. The study projects Biden’s life expectancy at 96.8. It projects Trump will live to 88.6.

Barzilai reached similar findings to those made by two other physicians who reviewed the records independently and wrote their own summaries: the University of Hawaii’s Willcox and Dr. Paola Rode, a former assistant clinical professor at the Tufts School of Medicine.

Like virtually all septuagenarians, the presidential candidates have lived through health challenges.

In the late 1980s, Biden suffered cerebral aneurysms that had to be surgically repaired. More than 30 years later, he shows no ill effects, the paper said. His most routine health concern is heart arrhythmia, albeit with no alarming side-effects.

Trump’s major health challenge is his weight, 244 pounds on his 6-foot-3-inch frame. That compares with Biden’s 178 pounds, at just under 6 feet. Trump has a body-mass index of more than 30, which is considered obese, while Biden’s body-mass number is 24.4, which "places him in the lowest mortality risk group," the paper says.

The president’s extra weight puts him at risk of developing Type-2 diabetes, according to the authors.

The good news for Trump is that a fix – eating healthier and exercising more – is within his control.

Lead author Olshansky urged the 2020 candidates and their supporters not to "weaponize" the issue of age. Even though the campaign will end with the election of the oldest president in history, that should not be considered negative, argued Olshansky.

"We see chronological age as a topic of discussion time and again during elections," he said, "even though scientific and medical evidence tells us that biological age is far more important."