Finally, some happy news for US President Barack Obama.
Despite a common assumption that life in the Oval Office prematurely ages its occupants and speculation that it may even shorten life spans, a new statistical analysis has found that most presidents have actually lived longer than other American men their age. And all living presidents have either already surpassed the average expected life span or are likely to do so.
S. Jay Olshansky, an expert on aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago, gathered the evidence and concluded that 23 of the 34 presidents who died of natural causes “lived beyond the average life expectancy for men of the same age when they were inaugurated.”
“We don’t die of gray hair and wrinkled skin,” said Olshansky, whose findings were published on Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Olshansky first became intrigued by presidential longevity when he heard chatter in the news media about the signs, around Obama’s 50th birthday celebration in August, that the president was aging quickly. Commentators dwelled on the gray hair above his temples, the deepening creases around his mouth and the bags under his eyes that seemed to betray a weariness in one of the most stressful jobs on earth. There was even speculation that presidents age two years for every one they spend in the White House.
However, after 25 years of research on life expectancy, Olshansky was skeptical that the job was taking years off of presidents’ lives. After all, presidents in past eras had survived the perilous early years in times when many children were carried off by fevers and other ailments before the advent of antibiotics. Also, most presidents have been college-educated, wealthy and provided with the best medical care — advantages that would seemingly have improved their odds.
So Olshansky, who specializes in biodemography — the study of factors that influence the duration of life — set out to gather the data needed to answer the question. Examining medical records would have told him what ailed individual presidents, but would not have enabled him to compare their life spans to the average. So instead he relied on standard life tables and public data about the presidents’ years of birth and inauguration to calculate how long each would have been expected to live on the day he was inaugurated.
He excluded the four presidents who were assassinated. To account for claims that presidents age twice as fast while in the White House, he subtracted two days of life from every day in office. He compared the estimated life span at age of inauguration with how long each president who died of natural causes lived. The mean age of the presidents who died of natural causes was 73 years compared with an estimated 68.1 years they would have been expected to live had they aged twice as fast while in office.
Some presidents have worried about the signs of aging and may have even dyed their hair. In 2009, an executive for Clairol wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times that former US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy brought their own hair colorist to the White House. It is unknown whether presidents’ stressful years in office accelerated the outward evidence they were aging, but they have generally served at ages when their hair would have been graying and their skin wrinkling anyway, Olshansky said.