The world seems surprised that an 85-year-old globe-trotting pope who just started tweeting wants to resign, but should it be? Maybe what should be surprising is that more leaders his age do not, considering the toll aging takes on bodies and minds amid a culture of constant communication and change.
There may be more behind the story of why Pope Benedict XVI decided to leave a job normally held for life. But the pontiff made it about age. He said the job called for “both strength of mind and body” and said his was deteriorating. He spoke of “today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes,” implying a difficulty keeping up despite his recent debut on Twitter.
“This seemed to me a very brave, courageous decision,” especially because older people often don’t recognize their own decline, said Dr. Seth Landefeld, an expert on aging and chairman of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Age has driven many leaders from jobs that used to be for life — Supreme Court justices, monarchs and other heads of state. As lifetimes expand, the woes of old age are catching up with more in seats of power. Some are choosing to step down rather than suffer long declines and disabilities as the pope’s last predecessor did.
Since 1955, only one U.S. Supreme Court justice — Chief Justice William Rehnquist — has died in office. Twenty-one others chose to retire, the most recent being John Paul Stevens, who stepped down in 2010 at age 90.
“People’s mental capacities in their 80s and 90s aren’t what they were in their 40s and 50s. Their short- term memory is often not as good, their ability to think quickly on their feet, to execute decisions is often not as good,” Landefeld said. Change is tougher to handle with age, and leaders like popes and presidents face “extraordinary demands that would tax anybody’s physical and mental stamina.”
Dr. Barbara Messinger- Rapport, geriatrics chief at the Cleveland Clinic, noted that half of people 85 and older in developed countries have some dementia, usually Alzheimer’s. Even without such a disease, “it takes longer to make decisions, it takes longer to learn new things,” she said.
In the U.S. Senate, where seniority is rewarded and revered, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond didn’t retire until age 100 in 2002. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia was the longestserving senator when he died in office at 92 in 2010.
Now the oldest U.S. senator is 89-year-old Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.