Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Aging: The Political Elite & Airline Pilots

The reemergence of former Vice President Dick Cheney in the CIA torture debate raises or re-raises all sorts of questions. One question that is not getting much attention is the health and age of key decision makers like Supreme Court Justices and high ranking elected officials.   I bring this up because Cheney has a long standing history of cardiac disease including at least four major open heart surgeries (two bypasses, an artificial heart and finally a heart transplant).   I also bring it up in the context of commercial airline pilots who are forced to retire at age 65 and prior to that are limited from working if they have significant medical problems. Additionally, depending on their age, they have to pass yearly or twice yearly physical exams to continue flying.


The Supremes

Currently, five of nine members of the Supreme Court are over 65 and would be ineligible for a commercial airline pilots licence based on age alone.   Justice Samuel Alito is knocking on the door and will be 65 on April 1st, 2015.


The Senate and House

The US Senate is an “old” organization with 40 of 100 members over 65. Harry Reid is 75 and Mitch McConnel is 72. I have no idea about the health status of Mitch McConnel, but Reid suffered strokes in 2013 and 2005. John Boehner is 65 and Nancy Pelosi is 74.



If Hillary Clinton were to be elected president in 2016 she will be 69, and she has a history of a venous blood clot in her brain. Vice President Joe Biden just turned 72 and has had brain surgery and also atrial fibrillation. Mitt Romney is 67, and at least as of 2011 was very rigorous about his diet and exercise regimen, but again as fit as he appears to be — he can run for president but can’t fly a commercial airline.


Does it Matter?

In the case of Dick Cheney there has been speculation dating from the middle 2000s that his medical condition(s) might have led to cognitive issues and clouded his judgement. There are also long standing concerns about the health of Franklin Roosevelt in the waning years of World War 2. He had a history of severe hypertension and other problems that almost certainly limited his ability to function late in the war.   Woodrow Wilson had a debilitating stroke in office that was largely covered up. Then there is the case of William Howard Taft who weighed over 300 pounds, was likely diabetic and clearly hypertensive with systolic blood pressures over 200. Taft also had sleep apnea.   After his presidency he served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and more or less acknowledged that he was having cognitive issues before he resigned and then died shortly thereafter at age 72. While we are at it, let’s not forget JFK, who was much younger but a medical train wreck.


Age Limits?

I am an advocate of healthy aging and believe that there should be no hard age limits for most jobs. However, I do believe that the health, especially the cognitive health of older decision makers needs to be evaluated and that those who show evidence of impairment should not be eligible for service. The other issue here is ongoing testing and evaluation of those already in office. Ronald Reagan was confused and rambling in one of his debates with Walter Mondale in 1984. Was it an early sign of his cognitive decline? A key elected leader or judge can make decisions that affect thousands of people in major ways with far more lives at risk than a full airplane. The president can embark on most military interventions with limited oversight. And don’t forget, there is a co-pilot on the plane.



Tags: ,

Leave a Reply