Presidency not a death sentence

America's chief executives tend to outlive their peers

Despite the high levels of stress that accompany serving as president of the United States, commanders in chief don’t, in fact, experience a drop in life expectancy, a new study finds. Those who hold the highest office in the land may get a few more gray hairs and wrinkles by the end of their term, but they don’t age at an accelerated rate, suggests sociologist Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“A lot of people are under the false impression that the presidency ages these men faster,” says Olshansky. “But we don’t die from graying hair or wrinkled skin.”
Stress may play a significant role in producing such outward signs of aging, but when it comes to determining longevity, other factors such as wealth and access to quality education and health care are more influential, Olshansky suggests in a study published in the Dec. 7 Journal of the American Medical Association.

As President Obama celebrated his 50th birthday earlier this year, noticeable changes in his hair color spurred more speculation about the impact of executive duties on the health of presidents. At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Seth Meyers observed of the president, “When you were sworn in, you looked like the Old Spice guy. Now you look like Louis Gossett Sr.”
Comedians weren’t the only ones to notice Obama’s changing physical appearance. Several doctors publicly claimed the changes were evidence that U.S. presidents age two years for every year spent in office.
“People tend to believe claims like this because of the stress of the position, but when you apply it to the data, it doesn’t hold up,” says psychologist Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, who was not involved in the study.

To get his results, Olshansky examined the life expectancy statistics, respective to time period, for men the same age as each president when he was inaugurated. When Olshansky then compared the life spans of presidents to the average life spans of their contemporaries, he found that most presidents — 23 of the 34 who died of natural causes or are still living — actually lived longer than their peers.

“Presidents have clearly benefited from their wealth and status,” he says. For him and Carstensen, the results of the study reiterate the point that social class is the best indicator of life expectancy.
“There’s a real story here,” says Carstensen, “and it’s an important story.  People who are affluent aren’t just living better lives, but they’re living more years, too.”
Olshansky acknowledges that his study isn’t perfect — the sample size is “necessarily small” for example — but he thinks it’s a good start. “We can start posing lots of other questions with this data,” he says.
Next, he plans to study whether the life spans of presidents differ from those of their contemporaries with similar socioeconomic profiles. That analysis could tell him more about the effects of stress and social class on aging.      

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