When former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, show up Thursday in Miami at the Democratic debates, there will be much public discussion about the fact that that any of them — as well as President Trump — would be the oldest president in U.S. history. But in other parts of the world, their ages would hardly be an issue.
In Asia, Africa and Latin America, there is a long history of presidents in their late 70s, 80s and even 90s. I interviewed many of them in Latin America while they were in office. While some of them were sharp and active until the end of their terms, others weren’t.
By the November 2020 U.S. election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77, and Trump 74. The oldest president in U.S. history was Ronald Reagan, who was 73 years and 274 days old when he was elected to a second term.
By comparison, Cuban dictator Raul Castro — who officially stepped down as president a few years ago but remains as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and Cuba’s de facto ruler — is 88 years old. His late brother Fidel Castro stepped down as president at 82, but continued to rule behind the scenes until he died at 90.
The current president of Uruguay, Tabare Vazquez, is 79 years old. His immediate predecessor, Jose Mujica, took office at age 74, and ruled until he was 79. One of the best-known candidates for Uruguay’s presidential elections in October is former president Julio Maria Sanguinetti, who is 83 and as sharp as they come.
Brazil’s recent president Michel Temer took office at 75 and stepped down at 78. Late Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera was elected for a second term at age 78, and left office at 83.
Caldera walked with difficulty in his last years in power. He also made some huge mistakes, such as pardoning former coup plotter Hugo Chavez, who would win an election a few years later.
One of the oldest Latin American presidents I remember interviewing was late Dominican Republic’s Joaquin Balaguer, who ruled until two weeks before turning 90. He was almost totally blind during his last years in office.
When I last saw Balaguer at the presidential palace, I asked him how he managed to know the content of the decrees he signed without being able to read them. He told me that he routinely asked his visitors — whether they were foreign ambassadors or businesspeople — to read him aloud the documents that were on his desk. That way, he made sure that his aides would not deceive him and make him sign anything he wouldn’t agree with, he told me.
In Asia, the Middle East and Africa, there are currently some rulers who are in their 90s. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is 93, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi is 92, and the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al Jaber Al-Sabah, is 90.
Supporters of septuagenarian U.S. candidates argue that life expectancy has risen significantly in recent years. According to the U.S. Social Security website, a 74-year-old male in the United States — like Trump would be in 2020 — can expect to live 11.8 more years, while a 77-year-old can expect to live 10 more years, and a 79-year-old 8.8 more years.
But then, of course, an obese 74-year-old who eats hamburgers every day may not be as healthy as a 79-year-old who exercises regularly and eats healthy.
There is also a question of mental health. While only 3% of people aged 65-74 have Alzheimer’s dementia, the risk of that condition increases to 17% for people aged 75 to 84, according to the U.S. Alzheimer’s Association.
Perhaps, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask presidential candidates to undergo mental health exams and release their results, just as we do now with their physical exams.
After all, we don’t want our presidents to run marathons. We want them to be sharp and serene. We should ask Trump, Biden and Sanders to submit themselves to mental health tests so that we have a better idea of what we may get.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: email@example.com.