All that stress at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. No wonder our presidents age before our very eyes.
Except that presidents can actually expect to live longer than other men their age and era, according to a research letter appearing in the Dec. 7 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
That’s because of their access to good medical care, education and wealth – factors that may well have been even more important a century or so ago than they are today.
S. Jay Olshansky, a sociologist who studies longevity at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes that we do see “the graying of hair and wrinkling of skin.” (Check out President Barack Obama’s temples, or the before and after pictures of George W. Bush.) But that’s not accelerated aging. It’s normal. And it doesn’t shorten their lives.
Omitting presidents that were assassinated or who are still alive, Olshansky analyzed the life spans of the other 34 presidents. Two out of three lived longer than the life expectancy for men their age at that point in history. (He did have to use some 19th century French longevity data, as the U.S. didn’t keep all the relevant U.S vital statistics.)
As for the living presidents – all have either already “exceeded the estimated life span of all U.S. men at their age of inauguration or are likely to do so,” he wrote. Both Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush are 87.
Olshansky noted that the average age at inauguration was 55, so presidents had already survived “the most perilous early years of life.” And the education and wealth factors – what today we would call social determinants of health – may have been even more important in the past than today. “All but 10 presidents were college educated, had considerable wealth, and had access to the best medical care in their era,” he wrote.
Of course, access to “the best medical care in the era” may have been a mixed blessing. Thomas Jefferson lived to 83, but some believe an ointment containing mercury contributed to his death. And historical accounts differ as to whether George Washington died at 67 from an illness – or from the blood-letting that was the attempted cure.