Bloomberg News

Stress of U.S. Presidency Doesn’t Lead to Shorter Lifespan

December 09, 2011

Dec. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The stress of being president of the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean a shorter life, even if it does cause gray hair and extra wrinkles, a study found.

Twenty-three of 34 U.S. presidents who died of natural causes lived longer than expected, according to a research letter in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Pictures comparing presidents at the start of office with those taken throughout their terms show grayer hair and more wrinkles leading some to conclude that the stress of the job is prematurely aging these men, said S. Jay Olshansky, an author of the study. Today’s findings show that access to excellent medical care, education and wealth may play a role in prolonging life, he said.

“Just because some of the outward signs of aging appear, doesn’t mean that the rest of the body is aging rapidly,” said Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in a Dec. 6 telephone interview. “It’s sort of a classic illustration of the benefits of privilege in terms of longevity.”

In the study, Olshansky used the assumption that presidents age at twice the normal rate of men who are the same age when the presidents are inaugurated. He calculated how long the men were expected to live based on their age the year they were inaugurated and compared it with their ages at death.

Reaching the Average

The study found the average lifespan of the 34 presidents who died of natural causes was 73 years, about the same as the estimated average lifespan of men of their time who were the same age as the presidents when they began their tenure in the White House.

Of the 23 presidents who lived longer than expected, their average age at death was 78, higher than the estimated 67 if they had aged at twice the typical rate, the research found.

For instance, George Washington, the first U.S. president, took office when he was 57.2 years old. His expected age of death was 64.3 years but he died at 67.8 years, Olshansky said.

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th U.S. president, took office when he was 46.9 years old and was estimated to die at 60.6 years. He instead died when he was 63.2 years old, according to the research. And Harry S Truman, the country’s 33rd president, was elected when he was 60.9 years old. Using accelerated aging he was estimated to die at 68.1 years but in actuality died when he was 88.6 years.

Modern Duties

The job of the president wasn’t very stressful for a large time in American history and only became harder with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms that increased the responsibility of the executive branch to address the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s, said Russell Riley, chairman of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“The data that goes in here could be a little bit skewed because you don’t have the same kind of problems throughout all of American history,” Riley said.

Concerns that the presidency may be aging the men who hold the office at a rapid rate have risen only with the arrival of television and the ability for the country to see the nation’s chief executive on a daily basis.

“This notion that the presidency is routinely wearing people out can be easily overstated because of the living memory of our own experience,” he said.

Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the U.S., had the longest lifespan, having died at age 93 on Dec. 6, 2006, surpassing by about a month Ronald Reagan, who also lived for 93 years.

--Editors: Andrew Pollack, Angela Zimm

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at nostrow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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