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Would Warren Buffett be a highly viable Presidential candidate?

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My col­league Dr. Murali Doraiswamy just wrote an excel­lent opin­ion piece for The New York Times: With Age Comes Wis­dom, and Some Con­cerns For Can­di­dates.

He ends it up say­ing that, “As Hen­ry Ford not­ed, “Any­one who stops learn­ing is old, whether at 20 or 80. Any­one who keeps learn­ing stays young.” We should shift the debate away from wor­ry­ing about the age of our can­di­dates and focus instead on their cog­ni­tive skill set and prac­ti­cal wis­dom.”

I could­n’t agree more with those wise words.

warren-buffetBut, I do dis­agree with the words just pre­ced­ing them: “War­ren Buf­fett, at the age of 85, would still be a high­ly viable can­di­date, should he choose to run.”

To see why I disagree–and why it matters–let me syn­the­size some recent research on brain health, cog­ni­tion and aging.

As we grow old­er, our whole body changes. The same is true (sur­prise sur­prise) for the brain. The most com­mon struc­tural change is brain atro­phy as neu­rons, and con­nec­tions between neu­rons, tend to die over time. In terms of func­tional changes, age-relat­ed cog­ni­tive decline typ­i­cally starts at about forty, when the brain pro­cess­ing speed slows down.

Dr. Jer­ri Edwards, one of the lead­ing sci­en­tists we inter­viewed as prepa­ra­tion for the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age, defines pro­cess­ing speed as “men­tal quick­ness”. Younger brains process infor­ma­tion faster than old­er brains. Young and old brains can accom­plish the same tasks but the old­er brains will do so more slow­ly. In our dai­ly life, the speed at which we process incom­ing infor­ma­tion can be cru­cial. This is the case, for instance, when one is dri­ving and has to assess the sit­u­a­tion and take deci­sion in a 1/45th of a sec­ond.

Along with speed of pro­cess­ing, oth­er brain func­tions tend to decline over time. The decline typ­i­cally hap­pens in areas that under­lie our capac­ity to learn and adapt to new envi­ron­ments, such as prob­lem-solv­ing in nov­el sit­u­a­tions, work­ing mem­ory, dex­ter­ity and flex­i­bil­ity. As we age, it takes more and more effort to tune out dis­trac­tions and stay focused.

Now, indi­vid­u­als do vary in how and when they expe­ri­ence these decreas­es, so it is very true that we should be con­cerned not about a can­di­date’a age, but about their own indi­vid­ual brain. And there are some pos­i­tive ele­ments to pon­der: Grow­ing old­er gen­er­ally means that one has acquired more knowl­edge and wis­dom, and some func­tions tend to improve with age, such as vocab­u­lary and word-relat­ed lan­guage skills, pat­tern recog­ni­tion, and emo­tional self-reg­u­la­tion. As a gen­eral rule, skills that depend heav­ily on pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence tend to improve — for exam­ple, as judges tack­le more cas­es, and more com­plex cas­es, they devel­op a refined intu­ition for solu­tions that solve prob­lems effi­ciently and build on empa­thy and insight.

In summary…as long as our envi­ron­ment does not change too rapid­ly, we tend to accu­mu­late very use­ful wis­dom through­out our lives–yet our capac­ity to process and deal with change declines.

So, would War­ren Buf­fett be a high­ly viable Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date?

I don’t think so. Not even close.

War­ren Buf­fet can remain a suc­cess­ful val­ue investor for years and hope­ful­ly decades to come (dis­clo­sure: I have a healthy amount invest­ed in Berk­shire Hath­away, so I’m putting my wal­let where my mouth is), but it would be extreme­ly hard for him to mas­ter, at age 85,  the cog­ni­tive skill set required to adapt to a whole new envi­ron­ment, such as becom­ing a growth investor, or day trad­er, or pres­i­den­tial can­di­date or, even­tu­al­ly, Pres­i­dent of the USA.

Hav­ing said that, I’ll acknowl­edge it’s all rel­a­tive. Who else is run­ning? Brain sci­ence has some answers…but cer­tain­ly not all.

To learn more:

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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