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 the 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.
*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*