Like millions of my fellow citizens, I have a bad back; I take prescription pain medications for it. Three years ago, I had a long conversation with a doctor who, in addition to his clinical work, does research on chronic pain. He told me that pain's effect on the brain is basically identical to the effect of aging, only accelerated. Which suggests that there is some science behind one of my favorite movie lines--in the first Indiana Jones movie, Harrison Ford says to Karen Allen: "It's not the years, honey; it's the mileage." Experiences that traumatize the body play havoc with the mind. Consequently, some of us are old beyond our years. I certainly am.
Which leads me to John McCain's age. McCain's body suffered horribly over an extended period, far more than mine and more than I imagine. That might have a significant effect on McCain's mental acuity and flexibility, his ability to think through complex problems. As a general matter, electing a 72-year-old President seems fine to me. Healthy 72-year-olds are not as mentally sharp as when they were 40 or 50--on the other hand, they know more and have probably acquired more wisdom than most 40- or 50-year-olds. The tradeoff seems reasonable.
But McCain is not a typical 72-year-old: on the one hand, he's more talented than most (also more courageous); you don't reach the upper levels of American politics without substantial talents. On the other hand, his body has suffered more and worse than most. If that pain researcher is right, McCain may have the mental makeup of someone a decade older.
And while some important political leaders of the not-too-distant past--Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Deng Xiaoping--have served competently into their 80s, others--François Mitterand, Leonid Brezhnev, Ronald Reagan (Reagan was shot near the beginning of his presidency, which may have affected his aging process)--seemed less than fully competent in their last years in office even though they remained in their 70s.
Maybe the researcher with whom I spoke was wrong. Perhaps years matter, and "mileage" doesn't. Maybe hard blows to the body don't take a toll on the head. Or maybe those blows are absorbed over time, such that decades later, the mental aging process is unaffected; the normal equilibrium between mind and body returns. I don't know the relevant science first-hand, and would welcome correction and further information from those who do. If, however, hard years count for more than easy ones when measuring one's mental age, politicians and pundits alike have been getting the age issue wrong. The proper concern with McCain's age may not be the likelihood that he'll die in office. The bigger risk may be that he'll live.