Voters concerned about the ages of politicians: U-M experts can discuss


The age of political candidates and elected officials has been highly debated this election year. University of Michigan experts are available to discuss.

Sheria Robinson-Lane is a gerontologist and assistant professor of nursing with expertise in palliative and long-term care. Her work aims to reduce health disparities and improve health equity for diverse older adults and family caregivers managing pain and chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

"One of the common myths about aging is that dementia is a normative part of the aging process. The confused or feeble elder is a common aging trope,- she said. "While health conditions that affect memory like Alzheimer’s disease are most prevalent among the eldest of our population, living long doesn’t automatically equate to significant memory loss. And where a person starts, in terms of their level of cognitive functioning, affects any changes they may experience.

"As it relates to emotional regulation, in the absence of disease, this actually tends to improve with aging. The longer you live, the more effectively you are able to cope with social stressors. I also think we have to be careful about not confusing assertiveness, being direct and less tolerant of poor behavior as poor emotional regulation.

"How individuals age and the level of disability that they experience related to ongoing chronic disease can vary widely. We also have the addition of the long-term effects of coronavirus infection that are still not fully understood. One thing to keep in mind when it comes to the topic of age and cognitive performance is the role of bias. If there are concerns about the level of disability a political candidate may have that can impede their ability to perform optimally, we should be thinking about how we examine these factors in all candidates-not just the old ones.-

Amanda Sonnega is an associate research scientist at the Institute for Social Research who studies life course trajectories of physical and mental health; institutional and personal factors associated with vulnerability and resilience in aging individuals; and work transitions and their broad effects on health and well-being.

"The risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment increases steadily with age,- she said. "Individuals with higher levels of education have a lower risk of developing dementia.

"Over time, increasing levels of education in the population, along with improved treatment for cardiovascular risk factors for dementia, are likely contributing to decreased chances of developing dementia. But because the size of the older population is growing so rapidly due to population aging, the overall burden of dementia in the population will grow rapidly in the coming years.-

Eleanna Varangis , assistant professor of movement science and member of the Michigan Concussion Center, studies how mild traumatic brain injury affects brain health throughout life with the goal of identifying factors that may impact healthy brain aging. She can discuss general age-related changes in cognitive function, activities and traits that may promote cognitive health in older age.

"As people age, we may begin to see some changes in the brain that tend to go along with changes in cognitive function,- she said. "Generally speaking, older age tends to be associated with changes in domains like memory, processing speed and executive functioning. However, older age is also associated with better performance on tests of vocabulary and general knowledge or ’wisdom.’

"There is reason to believe that some of these age-related changes in cognition may arise because of the types of tasks we use to assess older adults. In some cases, when they are given more time on a task or complete a task that is more relevant to their daily life, they are much less likely to appear to have cognitive deficits. Based on decades of research on what might explain some of this variability in cognitive health in older age, we know that participation in things like regular exercise, social engagement and cognitively stimulating activities is associated with much better cognitive function later in life.

"Much of this cognitive change can be related to different aspects of brain aging. However, there is a good deal of variability in cognitive function that cannot be explained by brain aging alone, making it hard to precisely predict cognitive health in older age. In cases when pathological aging may be suspected, it is frequently close family members and friends who begin to notice that their loved one is struggling with something that has never been a challenge for them before. And while advanced age is one of the primary risk factors for neurodegenerative disease, it is not considered to be an inevitable part of normal aging.-

Patricia Reuter-Lorenz , professor of psychology, conducts research that investigates the neural and cognitive mechanisms of attention, working memory and executive control. Recently, she found that early life factors such as level and quality of education, neighborhood and environmental exposures, and socioeconomic status, influence how well people age.

"Even in older age, the brain is adaptive, can learn new things and has some ability to compensate for age-related decline, capacities that strongly characterize people who age most successfully,- she said.

Jacqui Smith , professor of psychology and research professor at the Institute for Social Research, studies ageand health-related changes in subjective well-being and cognition in midlife and old age. She teaches courses on the psychology of aging, lifespan cognition and theories of development across the lifespan.

Bruno Giordiani is a professor of psychiatry and associate director of the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center. His research focuses on the interaction of cognition and mobility performance across the lifespan, developmental cognitive and attention disorders, and the neuropsychological and cerebral metabolic aspects of progressive memory disorders and movement disorders.