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Should We Test the Mental Health Of Our Older Politicians?


Since our country’s conception, the median age of members of both the U.S. House and Senate has steadily increased, with few exceptions. These numbers can be attributed to the rising life expectancy rate, along with an increase in the number of health resources available to the public.

The average retirement age in the U.S. is about 63. But in Congress, the total number of representatives and senators over the age of 65 is 167 -- nearly a third of the entire legislative branch.

With those on the left questioning President Donald Trump's brain health, and those on the right making note of Rep. Nancy Pelosi's mental lapses, it seems there is some discussion on lawmakers’ prowess with age. The point can certainly be made that with age comes experience (and you may well find that some of the most competent politicians are those who have held their seats well beyond the retirement age), but there's plenty of data to challenge the notion that older is always better.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, approximately 25 percent of octogenarians show signs of dementia. For those 90 and up, it's 37 percent. Although the number of elderly congressmen is a much smaller population as a whole (only 11 members, or 2.5 percent, are currently 80 years old or more), many can easily stay in office well into their senior years, as long as they continue to run. Thus arises the issue of term limits and the lifetime appointment of judges, which has been debated frequently with little result.

That being said, if we don’t have any legal checks in place to limit the terms of those being elected, it begs the question of whether to evaluate them to make sure their cognitive health continues to be up to par for the job. Enter the Mini-Mental State Exam. The test itself only takes a few minutes to administer, and assesses a person’s overall mental orientation. In addition, it also checks a patient’s ability to follow a series of instructions, maintain attention, and learn and retain new information.

The exam isn't accurate as a one-use test due to a number of factors including education and IQ. But if used as a repeated test over months and years, the test can provide invaluable information on a particular politician’s cognitive health, as well as trends and patterns among them as a whole.

Examples of politicians who served well past their mental prime are well documented. For example, there was former Sen. Robert Byrd, whose twilight years in office were affected by long absences due to physical struggles to make it to the voting floor in the Senate. These absences led to him missing nearly half the total votes in the 111th Congress.  

Cases like Byrd's are a compelling reference point for the need of a test like the MMSE, but many congressmen object to testing that could find them unfit. According to U.S. Term Limits President Philip Blumel, “It’s an unbeatably cushy job that you can’t lose,” and “In the Senate and House, they believe they are gods. They wield power and resources and movement and view their seat as something akin to property rights.”

Although Mr. Blumel’s opinion sounds a touch too aggressive, it isn't unreasonable to ask if we as Americans should have a way to determine cognitive fitness for our more elderly politicians -- a way that could help the official, their staff, and their families decide whether to continue the job, or pass the torch.

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