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Elected heads of state have shorter lives than their losing rivals, study suggests

REUTERS
At left, presidential candidate Barack Obama speaking after winning the Iowa caucus in January 2008. At right, President Obama delivering a speech on the nuclear deal with Iran in August 2015.

If elected to the presidency, Donald Trump will be “unequivocally … the healthiest individual ever” to have that job, according to a statement released by his personal physician on Monday.

If that’s, ahem, true (Trump’s physician, New York gastroenterologist Dr. Harold Bornstein, didn’t say what historical data he used to come to that conclusion), Trump, 69, may want to reconsider running for the presidency — if he wants to live as long as possible, that is.

For a new study has found that people who win elections to head their governments — whether in the United States or in 16 other democracies around the world — live almost three years less, on average, than their losing opponents. 

“Our findings suggest that elected leaders may indeed age more quickly,” the authors of the study conclude.

The study was published Monday in the BMJ’s Christmas issue, which focuses each year on topics that the journal’s editors say are “quirky and fun,” but still scientifically sound (and peer-reviewed).

An ongoing debate

Whether American presidents age at a faster-than-normal rate is a somewhat controversial topic. Conventional wisdom (and some research) says yes, but a 2011 study says no. That study found that American presidents actually tend to live longer than their peers.

But it compared the life expectancy of presidents to that of the general U.S. population — a comparison that may be misleading, say the authors of the BMJ study.

“Given their higher socioeconomic status, one might expect presidents to live longer than the general population on the basis of known inverse associations between social class and mortality,” they write. “The fact that presidents do not live longer may suggest accelerated mortality compared with others of similar socioeconomic status.”

That’s why they decided to conduct a study that would compare the longevity of elected heads of state with runner-up candidates who never served in those highest posts.

Three centuries of data

The researchers — from the Harvard Medical School and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine — gathered data on 540 elected and runner-up candidates for president or prime minister in 17 countries (U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and 13 European countries). The elections went back to the U.K. parliamentary election of 1722.

After crunching the data, the researchers found that “without adjustment for life expectancy at time of last election, elected leaders lived 4.4 fewer years than their runners-up. However, elected leaders were also on average 3.8 years older in the year of their last election compared with runners-up.”

So the researchers adjusted for life expectancy. The data then revealed that the elected leaders lived, on average, 2.7 fewer years than their runners-up.

The study doesn’t attempt to explain why elected heads of states may have shortened lives. In the case of U.S. presidents, people often point to prolonged stress (accompanied by sleep deprivation) as a key factor. But there’s no direct evidence to support that theory.

Caveats

Like all studies, this one comes with caveats. S. Jay Olshansky, the human longevity expert who conducted the 2011 study that found U.S. presidents tend to live longer than other American men, pointed out one major limitation to Washington Post reporter Carolyn Johnson: The BMJ study couldn’t really determine whether winning leaders were aging faster than losing ones because the study didn’t exclude presidents and prime ministers who died of non-aging-related causes, such as accidents or assassinations.

“I say [presidential candidates] don’t have anything to fear from this study,” Olshansky told Johnson. “You’re part of the one-tenth of the top one percent of the wealthiest, most highly-educated people who have access to the best health care. You’ll do just fine.”

I’m sure Trump agrees.

You can read the BMJ study in full on the journal’s website.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 12/15/2015 - 10:43 am.

    A bad thing?

    Might as well be ascribed to 4-8 years of meals from the 3-star White House kitchen. I’d make that trade.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/15/2015 - 10:44 am.

    It’s not just Trump

    I’m pretty sure presidents and ex-presidents get far better health care than most of their citizens, especially in the United States (the only country in the group that does not have universal health care). They have a personal physician while in office, get regular checkups, and get constant reminders (i.e., nagging) to eat healthy, get some exercise, etc. The job doesn’t usually allow them to be true couch potatoes. There may be more leisure time in some of the smaller European states, but in the U.S. and most of the larger industrialized democracies, the duties of the job command more time and attention on a daily basis than do most “normal” jobs, so the attention to health is probably well-founded.

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