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An age-old problem: Defining who is elderly

As President Joe Biden turns 80 years old this weekend, a professor in the School of Education and Human Development looks at what constitutes old age in today’s society.
President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, who turns 80 on Nov. 20, speaks about infrastructure during an event at the White House on Oct. 19. Photo: The Associated Press

On Sunday, President Joe Biden will celebrate his 80th birthday, making him the oldest president in United States history. This momentous occasion has sparked a debate on whether he should run again for the presidency in 2024.

For that matter, should Donald Trump, a 76-year-old former president who just announced that he will run again for the post in 2024, have thrown his hat into the ring?

Can either man, considered old by most U.S. standards, keep up with the duties of the job?

In the United States, 65 years old has long been considered retirement age, when one became a senior citizen and received Social Security benefits.

But that model has changed. Most adults, age 65 and older, are twice as likely to be working today compared to 1985, according to a study by United Income, a financial and management company.  

And as the U.S. population ages, so does the workforce. Inflation also has played a role in older people continuing to work, since they need the added income, experts point out.

Joseph F. Signorile, a professor in the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development’s Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences, has written “Bending the Aging Curve,” a book in which he explores how to use targeted physical training as a way to age well.

“If you were to look back 30 years ago and talk about a person 65 years of age, you would have said this is an elderly person,” he said. “And now you hear people say, ‘Oh, he died at 78, he was so young.’ ”

Even the concept of ageism, or discriminating against someone because of their age, is a relatively recent phenomenon, he said. Modern medicine has played a role in delaying the effects of aging.

But Signorile, who runs the Laboratory of Neuromuscular Research and Active Aging in the Max Orovitz Laboratory complex on the Coral Gables Campus, said that one of the most effective ways to curb the onset of aging is with targeted exercise training.

“We should not age gracefully; we should fight it,” he said. One of the proven ways to maintain muscle strength, balance, and avoid being dependent on others as one ages is to engage in daily personalized training.

“Exercise is one of the keys to aging well,” he said. “There are strong relationships between neuromuscular function and cognition, as well as cardiovascular fitness and cognition.”

He warned that often a person may judge someone by their outside appearance and classify them as old, but that person may be more physically fit than someone younger.

“There is a difference between chronological age, which is how long you have been on Earth, and functional age, which indicates how well a person can perform their daily activities—like walking around their neighborhood, shopping and carrying their own groceries, and doing physical labor around their house. And training is the key to successful aging,” he said.

Remaining active in both body and mind is very important even as arthritis and other age-related conditions set in. Continuing to work and contribute to society can also help in the aging process. Experts acknowledge that older workers have professional and life experiences that add to the workplace.

Signorile, 75, continues to work every day imparting his 30 years of experience in the field to students and colleagues.

“But the good thing about university life is that I share my knowledge with my students; and as we speak, I learn from them,” he said. “Young people have great progressive ideas, things I never thought of.”

Inevitably, old age can bring on more serious conditions that are inevitable, he noted.

Although a regular exercise routine cannot prevent disease, it can delay or diminish symptoms. In the studies carried out in the Orovitz Lab with Parkinson’s patients, Signorile and his students have heard how regular physical exercise has helped them improve their lives.

“We had one Parkinson’s patient who said he could not drink his morning coffee because the tremors in his hands would not allow him to hold the cup,” Signorile recalled. After several exercise sessions, the client was able to hold the cup and enjoy his drink.

Signorile said that Biden may not look as strong and poised as Trump when he walks, but he does keep active. When Biden fell off his bicycle a few months back some people blamed it on his age.

“Everybody falls off their bicycle,” said Signorile. “The only way to not fall is to live your life lying flat on the ground.”