December 7, 2011
US Presidents Outlive Peers, Despite Appearance Of Aging Faster
Although many U.S. Presidents appear to show signs of accelerated aging during their time in office, they actually outlive their peers, according to a new analysis by a University of Illinois at Chicago sociologist.
Dr. S. Jay Olshansky compared how long U.S. Presidents would have been expected to live with how long they actually lived.
He got the idea for his analysis after watching President Barack Obama return to his hometown of Chicago to celebrate his 50th birthday. Olshansky was struck in the following days by the amount of media coverage over the president´s fast-graying hair.
Obama is not the only president whose visible aging has drawn media attention. Bill Clinton´s graying hair, Jimmy Carter´s baggy eyes, and George W. Bush´s forehead lines had all been covered by the press, with many "before" and "after" photographs showing what appeared to be characteristics of accelerated aging with each successive year in office.
However, while being president is a demanding job, Olshansky was skeptical of the idea that presidents age faster than normal, given that wealth, education and access to healthcare are all closely linked to longer lifespans, and presidents have all three resources in abundance.
In fact, if anything, presidents should age slower than the average person, he speculated.
To test his theory, Olshansky collected the birth, death, and inauguration dates of every U.S. president that died of natural causes, and also included living presidents. Based on their time in office, he then estimated their projected lifespans using an "accelerated aging" theory developed by Dr. Michael Roizen at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, who suggested on Obama's birthday that presidents age twice as fast as normal while in office.
Olshansky´s analysis found that two-thirds of presidents lived (or are living) longer than their projected lifespans. Furthermore, two-thirds also exceeded the average lifespan of men in their age group.
"The first eight presidents lived an average of 79.8 years during a time when life expectancy for men was under 40," Olshansky said.
"It seems like most presidents live exceptionally long lives."
If so, what is behind the rapidly graying hair and premature wrinkles that seem to appear on most presidents?
One obvious explanation is that U.S. presidents are simply older when they leave the White House as when they enter. Presidents typically assume office, on average, in their mid-50s -- a time when the external signs of aging tend to become more pronounced in men.
But Olshansky said he also suspects that high levels of stress may indeed contribute to superficial aging, even if they don't shorten lifespan.
"There is good, strong literature to suggest that stress can lead to accelerated graying of hair," he said.
"There's no question that stress has a powerful effect, but at least with regard to the presidents, it doesn't appear to be making them die sooner."
However, not all the presidents included in Dr. Olshansky´s study fared so well, with 11 dying earlier than expected at an average age of 62.1 years, compared to an estimated lifespan of 67.8 years.
Many of these presidents held office between the years of 1841 and 1923, Olshansky said.
"For some reason, in that window of time those presidents didn't do that well," he explained.
Olshansky said he plans to study others in high-stress jobs, such as chief executive officers, to test whether stress really does affect how old a person appears.
But either way, Obama and others under extreme stress shouldn't worry over their appearance, Olshansky said.
"No one dies from gray hair and wrinkles.”
Dr. Olshansky´s findings were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
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