This week I am going to comment on what is happening in our nation’s politics from the perspective of a gerontologist. This means looking at an aging Congress in terms of the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive, and biologic impacts on functioning.
From the social and cultural perspective, what we see in Congress now is a wave of Baby Boomers, mostly in their 60s and 70s who are trying to find a place in the social fabric as active, productive, and influential members. According to Quorum, this Congress is among the oldest to have served.
When looked at by Party, the average age of Republicans (there are 52 of them) is 63 and 62 for Democrats (there are 46 of them). There are two Independents, Angus King (I-ME) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who are 74 and 76 respectively. The oldest Democrat is Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) at 85 and the oldest Republicans are Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Dick Shelby (R-AL), all of whom are 84. The youngest Democrat is Brian Schatz (D-HI) who is 45 and the youngest Republican is Tom Cotton (R-AR) who is 41. This means there is a spread of 44 years in the Senate.
What can we infer from this? Well, if our elected Senators had access to television, those who were at least 10 in 1965 were watching shows like Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bonanza and Gilligan’s Island. They were getting their news from Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Howard K. Smith or Frank Reynolds. Coverage of a far-off place called Vietnam was sparse. Their parents were still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy and wondering how his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, would govern. All could tell you where they were when Kennedy was shot.
The 89th Congress, which would have been in session then, would pass laws that included the Voting Rights Act, the Highway Beautification Act, and the Social Security Act. The last Amendment to the Constitution would be proposed in 1964 and ratified on February 17, 1967. This was the 25th Amendment and addressed succession in the event the President was unable to serve. These were all substantial pieces of legislation that have had long-term effects.
The Senate was then headed by Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN). Mike Mansfield (D-MT) was the Majority leader and Everett Dirksen (R-IL) was the Minority leader. Speaker of the House was the late, great John McCormack (D-MA). Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) was the only female in the Senate.
Two-thirds of today’s current members of the Senate would have attended public schools and would have stood each day and said the Pledge of Allegiance. Those who recited it in school before 1954 would have learned it without the phrase, “…one Nation, under God”. The curriculum they studied in elementary, junior and senior high would have included units on civics. In order to obtain their high school diploma, they would have had to pass a civics exam.
Memorization of key documents for the nation such as the Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the Constitution, and Declaration of Independence was an expected part of history or civics courses. All the boys would have registered for the draft when they turned 18.
Coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s required people to confront challenges to our political system that had not been seen since the Civil War. Cultural norms were being confronted at every known vector. Core values of “duty, honor, Country” were being assailed by activists calling to question the morality of war. Segregation and economic marginalization of people of color were being challenged by the Civil Rights Movement. It was Law and Order vs. Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.
Law makers and law enforcement officials were confronted with civil disobedience such as the March on Washington. Riots broke out at the Democratic National Convention and the Mayor of Chicago called out the National Guard. LA, Detroit, and Chicago burned during riots that sprang up after Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Newspaper reporters became heroes and editors and publishers took on the mantle of uncovering and revealing actions taken by elected officials and their staff in an effort to increase transparency. Congressional hearings became televised events as Americans sought to find their moral compass.
Biology and Cognition
Biologic and cognitive aspects of what is transpiring in Congress today reflect a more detailed and broader understanding of how we function as we get older. Impacts of disease, lifestyle choices, and stress all contribute to both cognitive and physical changes in functioning. Specifically, heart disease, diabetes, substance use, and stress increase the likelihood that overall health will be compromised and functional impairment will result.
Heart disease and diabetes frequently occur in older adults. Without knowing actual medical histories of our elected officials, it is difficult to say how many of our Senators are being treated and monitored for these conditions. But there is a good probability that a number of them are. Cognitive consequences of heart problems and diabetes include slowed cognition, confusion, poor concentration, and impaired memory. These impairments can range in intensity from none to severe, and may not be present on a consistent basis. What does this mean? It means we don’t really know how well our elected officials are functioning because we don’t see them on a day to day basis.
According to studies published in Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, risky drinking is a problem for many older adults, especially for older men. Prevalence rates would predict that there is a strong possibility that some Senators engage in risky drinking, have an alcohol (or other substance) use disorder, or are functionally impaired because of substance use on occasion. Consequences of these behaviors, particularly if chronic, include impaired decision-making, liver failure, metabolic changes, and memory impairment. Again, such information is considered privileged when shared with a medical or behavioral health care professional, so unless the individual has made this information public, the voters will not be aware of it.
Then there is the possibility of cognitive impairment from Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Prevalence rates for these diseases increase the older we get. While we don’t know the cause, we do understand more clearly how to identify the functional impairments that come with this disease. The predominant complaint is failing memory. Again, this is not to imply that all older members of the Senate have or will acquire some form of dementia. Statistically, however, there is a strong possibility that one or two members have problems with executive functioning, which includes decision-making, and abilities to understand consequences of actions, pay attention and not become distracted, and recall things.
All of this is to say that we become more vulnerable as we age, and while there is a definite advantage in terms of acquired experience and wisdom, our capacities may be more limited and we may need to use different strategies for finding solutions to problems.
There is an eerie echo to all of this unfolding today. It is a psychological principle that past actions often predict future behaviors. If this be true, then we can hope that our better natures will take over and we will find a way through our current challenges.
I suggest we need to re-think criteria used to elect our representatives. It is no longer a choice between which Party the individual belongs to, but whether they are fit for the office in terms of values, functional capacity, political philosophy, and ability to fight for and preserve those things that represent what we truly value.
Food for thought.