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February 17, 2019

In US politics, grandmas and grandpas grab the power

In US politics, grandmas and grandpas grab the power
'Donald Trump is the oldest president ever elected in the United States' - By: AFP/File Jim WATSON

In 2018, in the country that gave us young leaders like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, political power has been grabbed by politicians in their seventies and eighties.

What is the secret energy that fuels politicians like 72-year-old Donald Trump and the 78-year-old likely House speaker Nancy Pelosi? Their engagement, ambition and intellectual activity are all factors, experts on elderly health care say.

Pelosi is a good example of this aging cadre: bold and active, she marches through the endless corridors of Capitol Hill showing no sign of her age as she marshals her Democrats in opposition to the Republican agenda.

In February, the petite Pelosi grabbed headlines for standing on four-inch (10-centimeter) heels throughout an eight-hour filibuster, while far younger politicians opted for comfortable sneakers when they embarked on similar marathon speeches.

The Californian was nominated by her Democratic colleagues to become speaker of the House -- the third highest position in the US government -- in January.

She was already speaker from 2007 to 2010, and has no plans to retire or give up her leadership role, particularly after Democrats won back the House majority after the November mid-term election.

Pelosi, who turns 79 in March, will replace Republic Paul Ryan, 48. Her second-in-command is 79, and her third is 78.

In the Senate, the Republican majority is led by Mitch McConnell, who turns 77 in February.

- Summit of career -

Scientific studies show that "as we get older, people who have purpose and passion, live longer and do well," said Maria Torroella Carney, chief of the division of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Health in New York.

"I'm seeing it more and more in other professions," she told AFP, especially those in leadership positions, whether in business or politics.

Of course, people in positions of political and economic power often have access to better medical care than the working class, which is a major factor in living longer.

How do they stay in shape?

Pelosi said in a 2011 interview with the New Yorker magazine that she enjoys power walking along the banks of the Potomac River.

Eric De Jonge, director of geriatrics at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, said he has "cared for senior US politicians," but declined to name which ones.

Sleeping well, eating well, exercising and having "a balanced life" are the pillars of success for healthy aging, he said.

But the stresses of political life, all those meetings, all the traveling, the fiery arguments, the late-night negotiations... Aren't those things harmful to the health?

On the contrary, he said.

"If you love your job, and you know, you have a chance to have great influence, and you really enjoy it, that may not being as stressful as you know, someone who was really unhappy or has emotional or medical issues," De Jonge said.

"It must be very compelling to have a chance to be in that leadership role, after you spend 30-40 years climbing the ladder, and all of a sudden you're there and so why would you give that up?"

- Dementia -

In the powerful Senate, an elite group of 100 members, seniority is seen as the top criteria for heading a committee -- so most senators have learned to be patient.

Chuck Grassley, chief of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in charge of confirming judges to the Supreme Court, is 85 -- the same age as the influential Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, who just won re-election.

Sometimes, another re-election just seems too much.

In April, Senator Thad Cochran finally stepped down at age 80 from his spot as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee after health problems and appearing disoriented.

"I worry more about the well-being of someone who's 85 than I do about someone who's 75," said De Jonge, recalling that there is a 50 percent risk of dementia after age 85.

But plenty of aging politicians are keeping their ambitions intact.

Trump, who reportedly loves hamburgers and sodas but golfs regularly, and says he never drinks or smokes, has vowed to seek office again in 2020.

He beat Hillary Clinton -- who was then 69 -- in 2016, and could face off against more adversaries of his own era next time around.

There is certainly a younger faction of leaders taking shape in American politics. But those sharpening their swords for the next political tussle include Elizabeth Warren (69), Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Sanders (77).

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