I bet you’ve seen those photos documenting the changes that occur in presidents during their stressful tenures. After a year or two, they are already showing signs of wear and tear; wrinkles line their faces and streaks of gray start to proliferate in their hair.
This observation led Dr. Michael Roizen, of RealAge.com fame, to deduce that presidents age twice as fast as the rest of us when they’re in office. He attributed it to “unrequited stress.”
But here’s the thing: physical appearance shouldn’t be confused with accelerated aging.
Never mind the gray hairs — according to a paper1 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), these leaders of the free world actually live longer than their peers. George H.W. Bush recently died at age 94, Ronald Reagan passed away at 93, and Jimmy Carter is still drawing breath at nearly 95.
Do presidents have access to an exclusive White House fountain of youth? Not quite.
However, those who have held the Oval Office have some interesting things in common, according to the study’s author, S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and longevity expert.
In 2011, Prof. Olshansky decided to put the presidential aging hypothesis to the test. He and his fellow researchers limited their analysis to the presidents who died of natural causes. Presidents who were still living and those who died of unnatural causes were excluded. This left a pool of 34 presidents.
Here’s what he discovered…
Twenty-three of the presidents exceeded the life expectancy of men the same age as themselves at the time they were elected, even if you applied the false assumption that the presidents experienced a doubling of biological aging while in office.
Interestingly, seven of the first eight presidents – George Washington through Andrew Jackson — enjoyed long lives. Their life spans averaged 81.5 years, an extraordinary feat for the time. The last one died in 1848.
“They lived as long as American women do today,” Prof. Olshansky stated in his research letter.2 As you probably know, American women these days live longer than men, and far longer than either sex did just a few decades ago.
Wondering Who Topped the Charts?
Considering the life expectancy of that era, President John Adams gets top honors at 90.7 years. Other super agers include Herbert Hoover, 90.2; Gerald Ford (93.5) and, of course, the previously mentioned Bush 43, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
What’s their secret to longevity?
According to the Prof. Olshansky’s findings, “All but 10 presidents were college educated, had considerable wealth, and had access to the best medical care in their era.”
Speaking of the 18th and 19th centuries, I doubt if “the best medical care” was a plus. George Washington was reportedly bled – a common medical treatment at the time.
These days, superior medical care might be a plus (I could argue the other side). But it’s a fact that recent Presidents and ex-Presidents have been served by the top doctors in the world – and it seems to have helped.
The Olshansky study is just one of many that have proven that higher socioeconomic and educational status bodes well for health in general. Being rich and earning a degree or two correlate with long life.
Years ago, I saw an interesting study comparing movie stars who had won an Oscar to comparably famous stars who did not. The Oscar winners lived longer. Obviously this was not a large or random sample of people, but it does suggest that social status boosts your health. The Buddha may have counseled against “feeding the ego,” but the longevity stats argue otherwise.
Prof. Olshansky makes another observation about the early Presidents: These men were inherently survivors.
“They had to live long enough to be nominated and elected,” Olshanksy said in an interview.3 “They had to survive the first few perilous decades of life. Back then infant mortality was extremely high. So, these are the survivors – the ones who made it into their fifth and even sixth decade of life.”
Looking Old Doesn’t Matter?
Prof. Olshansky discounts the importance of the physical attributes of aging, such as wrinkles and grey hair. He believes they are normal elements of aging, which occur in all men during this phase of life and can be bumped up by behavior risk factors.
“Whether these outward changes occur faster for presidents relative to other men of the same age is unknown,” the study stated. “Even if these signs of aging did appear at a faster rate for presidents, this does not mean that their lives are shortened.”
What can mere mortals learn from these findings?
Sure, presidents are intelligent, but they don’t possess a map to the fountain of youth. Here’s what I believe we can learn from this study. We aren’t all fabulously wealthy Harvard grads, with an adoring public asking for our autograph, but we can all adopt some of the same health and lifestyle tenets as presidents.
Most of these men were fit and active, some till the very end of their lives. They didn’t pile on the weight. And they sought medical help when they needed it – unlike many males who seem to have an aversion to seeing a doctor. For the most part they were surrounded by warm, loving families and many friends.
- Olshansky, Jay S. Aging of US Presidents. JAMA. 2011;306(21):2328-2329.