Peter Wehrwein

Obama going gray: Do presidents age faster?

It’s more than just a few flecks. President Barack Obama, who turned 50 in August, is definitely going gray. He’s said the color change runs in his family and has mentioned a grandfather who turned gray at 29.

But others see it as a sign that the presidency is taking a toll on Obama, as it has other on presidents. Dr. Michael Roizen, of RealAge.com fame, says presidents age twice as fast as normal when they’re in office. The main cause, he says, is “unrequited stress—they don’t have enough friends to mitigate the stress,” which brings to mind the line commonly attributed to Harry Truman: if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Accelerated presidential aging? Not so.

The only problem with this notion of accelerated presidential aging is that it just ain’t so, according to S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at theUniversity ofIllinois at Chicago and a longevity expert.

In an article in tomorrow’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Olshansky says his research into presidential life expectancy found no evidence that American presidents die sooner than other American men of their time. In fact, quite the opposite: most of them lived long lives and beat the longevity expectations for their time.

Olshansky limited his analysis to the presidents who died of natural causes, excluding the four who were assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy) and the five who are still living (Carter, the two Bushes, Clinton, Obama). That leaves 34. By his calculations, 23 of them exceeded the life expectancy of men the same age as the presidents when they were elected, even if you built in the (apparently false) assumption that the presidents experienced a doubling of biological aging while they’re in office.

John Adams (life span, 90.7 years), Herbert Hoover (90.2), Gerald Ford (93.5) and Ronald Reagan (93.3) exceeded the average life expectancy by the largest margins. Seven of the first eight presidents lived to a ripe old age: their life spans averaged 81.5 years. “They lived as long as American women do today,” Olshansky noted. The exception was Washington, who died at age 67.8.

James K. Polk (53.6), Chester A. Arthur (57.1), and Warren G. Harding (57.8) were the furthest below expectations.

Privileged people, including presidents, live longer

In his JAMA article, Olshansky offered a couple of explanations for presidential longevity.

All but 10 of the deceased presidents were college educated, wealthy, and had access to the top medical care of their day. The correlation between high socioeconomic status and long life is strong and consistent.

The other explanation is that these men were survivors. To reach the age at which they became president (the average was 55.1 years), they had to get through the perils of birth, early childhood, and young adulthood. Especially in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, that wasn’t easy, so these men probably had some inborn hardiness, as well as fortunate circumstances.

Do our eyes deceive us? Yes they do.

And yet presidents do seem to age before our eyes. Olshansky says that’s partly because we just notice it more in someone who lives in the public eye.

In his JAMA article, Olshansky cited a study that connected gray hair to stress. But in his conversation with me, he emphasized that the outward signs of what we commonly attribute to aging and genuine aging aren’t necessarily related. “Getting wrinkles and turning gray—they really don’t matter very much,” he said.

I just looked in the mirror and couldn’t agree more.

Comments:

  1. anneltcag

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  2. Heather Smith

    Interesting article, a presidents job is very stressful but I don’t think he has age faster, in his appearance maybe because of his gray hair but that does not mean his aging faster. I had a great time reading this article, thanks.

  3. heather barr

    I believe the good Doctor means unremitting, unceasing, perpetual, continuous or constant unmitigated/undiluted stress. Not unrequited. Unrequited means unreturned or unreciprocated, as in its most familiar use, unrequited love.
    I’d go gray in a day if I had President Obama’s job. Not a day’s rest from stress.

  4. Mik H

    I don’t know if he has aged, but he has sure made me age in the past 3 years.

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  6. Joe Williams

    Isn’t it just a function of normally electing men who are entering middle-age? He took office when he was in his forties and now he is in his fifties. Isn’t that when we would expect to see men’s hair turn gray?

  7. Amy

    Did anyone else notice that the average President actually lived a SHORTER life than the typical man of their time? The average President lived to 73.0 while the average man lived to 73.3. This might not be statistically significant, but it could be if the study considered socioeconomic background. For example, the author of the study estimated FDR would live 12 years shorter than average since he was in office 12 years. FDR lived longer than would be predicted if he lost an extra year of life for each year in office – he only lived 8.5 years shorter than average, not 12 years shorter than average – but amazingly this is mistakenly translated into his living longer than average. Re-look at the study please – if anything, it shows Presidents live shorter, not longer lives.

  8. Patty Tucker

    Couldn’t both be true — that presidents age more quickly during the time they are in office and then when the stress is off after the term ends, they fall back on their genetic privilege and live to be ripe oldsters?

    Maybe, as in politics in general, a “this AND that” view could explain more than the “EITHER / OR” one…

  9. Kevin Brown

    What exactly was the point of this article? Stress damages and ages the body. Presidents have a very stressful job, but are only in office for 4 or 8 years. The effect heavy stress takes on the body depends on the person’s body, how they’ve maintained it over the years and how they treat it in the future. And of course, just because you’re alive, doesn’t mean you’re healthy.

    Was just just an article for people who aren’t very bright to tell them that being a president won’t automatically kill you sooner? If that was your target audience, I think putting this article in The National Enquirer would have been more helpful.