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The Body Politic: How important is a politician’s health?

ByLouise Munro

Sep 26, 2016

Image: May via Unsplash

With fewer than 60 days until the American presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis has raised further questions about what candidates should tell voters about their health.

A surprising number of American presidents have fallen ill during their tenure or shortly after leaving the Oval Office: Franklin D. Roosevelt fought polio; Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack; Woodrow Wilson had a serious stroke and left his wife to finish his term. Historically, such weaknesses have been carefully hidden to project strength and consistency to the public.

Whilst the Federal Election Committee demands access to a candidate’s financial history, the constitutional requirements for presidency make no reference to health, leaving the candidates themselves to decide how much they want to disclose about their wellbeing.

This election, in particular, requires serious thought as both presidential nominees are among the oldest in history.

But while voters have been told about things like a candidate’s surgical history and cholesterol levels (Trump takes statins), there is still some speculation about the mental acuity of the presidential hopefuls.

Neuroscientists have established that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain essential for decision making, shrinks with age.

Another team at the University of Virginia, studying ageing CEOs, found that learning and memory tasks usually completed efficiently in specific regions, required both hemispheres in the ageing brain.

This does not mean older brains cannot handle the trials of a presidency, in fact, whilst it may be slower, the ageing brain can compensate and potentially make ‘wiser’ choices.

The standard brain may experience a cognitive slowdown with age, but the average presidential candidate is likely to be an anomaly. However, consideration must be given to how the public will know if or when they become too old for the office – and whether they have a right to know in the first place.

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