Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wealth, status help presidents live longer than most Americans -- Dec. 8, 2011 column


Like time-lapse photography, the president – whether it’s Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton – ages right before our eyes.

We look at pictures in the news and see the president grow jowly, worn and gray or white-haired in four short years. If we’re charitable, we may feel sorry for someone with so much on his shoulders and for the toll we imagine the nation’s highest office takes on his health

A new study suggests we should save our sympathy for people who deserve it.

Some doctors say a president ages two years for every year in the White House, but if that were the case, presidents would die sooner than other Americans. And they don’t.

Presidents actually live longer than most people, says S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose report on the aging of presidents appeared this week in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The haves – people who are wealthy, have better educations and better healthcare -- tend to live longer than the have-nots.

Presidents clearly benefit from their wealth and status, says Olshansky, who has studied how education affects longevity. He found that men with 16 or more years of education have a life expectancy seven to nine years longer than those with less education.

He became curious about presidential aging last summer when Obama celebrated his 50th birthday in Chicago. News reports gleefully noted how much grayer Obama’s hair and deeper his facial lines had become and quoted physicians who cited the two-years-for-one statistic.

There’s no blood test to measure how fast someone is aging, Olshansky explained in a university podcast, so he compared how long presidents would be expected to live after their age at inauguration with other people’s life spans. He subtracted eight or 16 years from expected life spans, depending on whether the president served one or two terms.

He excluded the four assassinated presidents and studied the longevity of the 34 presidents who died of natural causes as well as the life expectancy of the former presidents and Obama. He found 23 of the 34 lived longer and, in many cases, much longer, than would be normally expected.

The average age at inauguration was 55, and the mean age at death was 73. Had the presidents aged twice as fast while in office, they would have died several years earlier.

The first eight presidents lived to be an average of nearly 80 years old at a time when a man’s life expectancy was well under 40. John Adams was nearly 91 when he died.

Herbert Hoover was 90, and Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford both died at 93. Olshansky also looked at current former presidents and found they too are outliving their expectancy. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are both 87.

Obama’s life expectancy is 79 years, Olshansky says, but Obama’s wealth, education and access to quality healthcare likely will extend his life.

Lyndon Johnson was an exception to the trend to presidential longevity. He was 64 when he died of an apparent heart attack, about 19 years earlier than his projected life expectancy.

Dr. Michael Roizen, author of the New York Times bestseller “RealAge: Are You As Young As You Can Be?” promotes the idea that the president ages two years for every year in office. Roizen, chief of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic, contends that people have a calendar age and a “real age” that reflects diet, exercise, stress management and other lifestyle habits.

Olshansky’s study doesn’t disprove the “real age” idea, Roizen says. It proves only that “to run for president you tend to be incredibly healthy,” he told the Associated Press.

So does the presidency accelerate skin aging and hair graying? Olshansky says he doesn’t know.

“I do know that if you take any 50- or 40-year-old man and follow him for four or eight years, chances are they’ll lose their hair and what’s left will turn gray.”
But, of course, Olshansky says, nobody dies of wrinkles or gray hair.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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