After binge-watching all nine seasons of the legal drama “Suits” my sophomore year of high school, I underwent a brief phase of wanting to be a corporate lawyer. To get my “foot in the door,” I registered in a local law organization’s debate competitions and went unranked in all but two events. The personal quality of mine that made me lose so often was none other than glossophobia, a fear of public speaking that can cause those afflicted to freeze up while speaking.
Unlike me, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell followed through with his affinity for the legal field by joining the University of Kentucky School of Law Class of 1967. Upon graduation, McConnell quickly climbed the rungs of political leadership through his talent in conveying the Republican message. Beginning as a legislative assistant and later as deputy assistant attorney general, McConnell’s journey gained true momentum when he was elected as Kentucky’s senator in 1984. Once situated within the Senate, McConnell has toggled between minority, majority and whip senatorial leader. In his roles, McConnell has not hesitated to openly call for filibusters, slimy legislation and the movement of any and all Republican pawns forward on the Senate floor.
This contrasts recent changes to McConnell’s disposition at the podium, where he was observed to freeze mid-sentence at two national press conferences. After failing to snap out of his trance, McConnell was swiftly ushered away from the spotlight by ancillary staff. In the days following his blunders, McConnell’s team has worked tirelessly to vouch on behalf of his abilities as a political leader in the media in the face of Democratic hearsay of health issues. Brian Monahan, Capitol Hill attending physician, issued a public letter citing that there is no medical evidence to suggest neurodegenerative diseases are at play. At age 81, however, calls for resignation continue to follow McConnell as he remains two years away from the conclusion of his congressional appointment.
Regardless, politicians in favor of congressional term limits are using McConnell’s blunders at the pulpit to illustrate an association between age, health status and competence that simply doesn’t exist. Frankly, the general public (which includes political and media pundits critical of McConnell) does not have the medical background to pathologize what are, in fact, displays of normal geriatric milestones. The American Psychological Association reports that hearing loss, lessened verbal pace and increased anxiety are all typical and expected outcomes of aging. Yet, when older politicians display what will eventually come naturally to all of us, their cognitive abilities are immediately slapped with labels of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.
By equating McConnell’s slowing metronome to diseases with clear clinical symptoms he doesn’t display (such as decreased motor function, hallucinations or loss of initiative), we inadvertently contribute to the stigma that surrounds dementia and those living with it. In the name of congressional term limit legislation, an idea that has its own data-driven merits, politicians push the narrative that any kind of ineptitude is a surfaced demonstration of dementia. It is crucial to recognize that each individual’s neurological trajectory is unique; attributing McConnell’s cognitive lapses to diseases that still require significant research to elucidate is an ad hominem attack that is lazy and ageist.
Neurodegenerative diseases occur from protein degradation, fibrillation and neuron loss in various processing centers of the brain — microscopic biomarkers that cannot advance the cause of congressional term limits like McConnell critics think they can. Focusing on anecdotes of older politicians actually detracts from objective improvements that congressional term limits can make, such as increased diversity in governing bodies and lessened partisanship. That is to say, the main benefit of term limits isn’t that they prevent older politicians from staying in office, but that they create more opportunities for diversity in Congress. Those opportunities should be open to older people, who might find a desire to serve later in life. Proponents of congressional term limits that are using McConnell to correlate age with ability to serve in Congress threaten the influx of new ideas from older generations vying for a spot at the table.
Eradicating the sentiment that age automatically comes with cerebral erosion provides older citizens a platform to represent the equally relevant and freshened concerns of America’s geriatric population. When new, yet older, citizens have a chance at holding office without the malice of ageism, they actually perform better on tests of mental acuity, notes Dr. Sarah Barber of Georgia State University. Her conclusions support the idea that perceived intelligence is highly influenced by individual experiences and environmental factors rather than molecular mechanisms of the brain.
It is also clear that the brain has a remarkable capacity for neuroplasticity, which allows it to adapt and compensate for age-related changes. Not only do meta-studies suggest that older adults can use different perceptual strategies to maintain cognitive function, but that compensation in mitigating cognitive decline is stimulated by fast-paced and highly meticulous jobs — one that McConnell certainly has as Senate minority leader.
Of course, McConnell’s lengthy voting record shows a lack of malleability in thought and opinion — and for that, I believe he has no place as Senate minority leader. But to displace bad politicians from positions of authority permanently, Americans must hone their attention to the ways brains deliberately vouch for bad legislation, rather than mutable molecular deficits that come with age.
Moses Nelapudi is an Opinion Columnist who writes about science, research and healthcare for The Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.