They ought to call it the Association of Resurgent Persons Grumpy? Hah!

April 17, 1996|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- Because Bob Dole is no kid, age is going to be a serious issue in this election. Accordingly, we ought to try to talk about it seriously, at least some of the time. We've already heard that the ''Dole 96'' campaign button does not refer to his age.

Last week, CBS News correspondent Jacqueline Adams reported, semi-humorously, on a study by neuropsychologists at the University of Pennsylvania. The team, headed by Dr. Ruben Gur, reports that as we age, brain cells shrink almost three times faster among men than among women.

Here's how part of the conversation went:

Dr. Gur: Men, as they age, make more mistakes.

Ms. Adams: Gur's tests show that as they age, men lose brain cells in their frontal and temporal lobes, and as a result, they can't concentrate or reason as well, and they tend to forget simple things.

Dr. Gur: This may explain the belief that older men get grumpy. . . . Men are still at the heads of governments throughout the world. And these are aging men, and that's something we may want to keep in mind.

Andy Rooney: Testing things can prove anything they want. . . . They can prove that old men are grumpier if they want to, or they can prove that they're sweeter if they want to.

Ms. Adams: At 72, presidential candidate Bob Dole hopes to defy limits on old age.

Mr. Dole: There must be exceptions . . .

The rest of the story

There are. I called Dr. Gur, who said that CBS excised from the interview a most important caveat. ''Experience may well compensate, or more than compensate, for lost cognitive powers,'' he said. Quite so. Winston Churchill served as England's prime minister until he was 81; Charles de Gaulle was the president of France until age 80; Konrad Adenauer was Germany's president at age 87. Ronald Reagan was president at age 77. Bob Dole will be 73 this July. (If re-elected, won't Bill Clinton be a better president at 51 than at 47?)

We should also ask whether we want a grumpy president or a sweet one: I think we need one who bangs heads, early and often. (And by the way, wasn't Andy Rooney grumpy when he was 30?)

A recent ''Think Tank'' program on public television (which I moderate) dealt with this question: ''Are older people getting younger?''

The panel consisted of Richard Sprott, director, Biology of Aging, National Institute on Aging; Elizabeth Cobbs, director, Division of Aging Studies and Services, George Washington University Medical Center; David Gutmann, professor of psychiatry and education, Northwestern University, author of ''Reclaimed Powers: Men and Women in Later Life;'' Betty Friedan, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, author of ''The Fountain of Age.''

There was heartening unanimity among the panel. More of us are living longer, with fewer disabilities, with better medicines on the way, with more active and successful elderly people as role models and with society slowly catching on to the idea that age is not a sickness. Elderly people are lifting weights, making love and making policy. Betty Friedan says the AARP ought to change its name to the ''American Association of Resurgent Persons.''

Dr. Gutmann says: ''Young people are good at the quick processing of information -- they recognize trees instantaneously. In later life, the brain works more slowly, but can construct forests from the clumping of trees.''

I'm not saying this is the choice this year, but if it were, would America be better served by a president more likely to see forests or trees? Do we want a president with knowledge or wisdom?

Anyway, there's another reason to cut out the ageism. There are 31 million eligible voters over age 65 and they are more likely to vote than the rest of the population. Accordingly, it's not a great idea to describe them as shuffling off to the polls with shrunken brains, trying to remember why they are going there. They might get grumpy and elect Andy Rooney.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist.

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