American presidents seem to age before our eyes. But the common belief that high-office stress grays our leaders faster than usual — possibly even hastening death — may be a myth, new research finds. In fact, the majority of American presidents have lived longer than typical men of their times.
That’s not to say that chronic stress has no effect on a person’s lifespan, but so does high social standing. The findings add to a body of research linking high status to better health: for instance, Oscar winners live longer than those who were only nominated; British civil servants at the top of the greasy pole outlive those at the bottom; and the longevity effect is also seen in Nobel laureates and even baboons.
The new study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analyzed the dates of birth, inauguration and death of all 34 past presidents who died of natural causes. The average lifespan for these men should have been 68 years, if they’d aged twice as fast during their years in office as the popular wisdom suggests they do.
Instead, the study found, these presidents lived an average 73 years. And indeed, 23 of the 34 presidents who died of natural causes lived longer than expected, compared with other men their age during their lifetimes.
For our earliest presidents, the longevity effect was especially pronounced. The first eight leaders of the U.S. lived on average 79.8 years, yet life expectancy at birth for men in the 18th and early 19th centuries was under 40. Some presidents survived an exceptionally long time: Gerald Ford died at 93.5 years, Ronald Reagan at 93.3, John Adams at 90.7, and Herbert Hoover at 90.2. All currently living presidents have already exceeded their life expectancy, or are likely to do so.
“Just because they experience what would appear to be accelerated aging outwardly, doesn’t mean they will die any sooner,” the study’s author, S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois-Chicago, told Reuters.
So why do people at the top of the hierarchy fare better than those below? Access to wealth, education and the best health care of their times would seem to be obvious factors (although medical attention seems to have actually killed President Garfield, who succumbed to a fatal infection introduced by his doctors’ unsterile treatment techniques after he was shot by an assassin). But research suggests that far more than that is at play.
For example, on average, actors who win Oscars live four years longer than those who just get nominated. For directors, the survival boost is an extra four and a half years. (Sadly, writers who win Oscars actually “lose” 3.6 years of life expectancy, perhaps because the award doesn’t carry as much prestige in the writing profession as do the acting and directing awards in their respective fields.) Nobel laureates also tend to outlive their scientific colleagues.
Similarly, the Whitehall studies of health in British civil servants found that the higher a man’s rank in the British government bureaucracy, the longer his life expectancy (for women, it is more complicated, and if married, the status of their husbands also plays a role). The men at the top of the hierarchy had a threefold reduction in mortality risk at all ages, compared with those at the bottom. Only about a third of this difference could be attributed to lifestyle factors like smoking, exercise and diet. And since all of the employees were enrolled in the U.K.’s National Health Service, access to medical care wasn’t what made the difference, either.
Even baboons — which, like humans, have social hierarchies — show health differences related to rank, with those at the top, or just shy of the top, faring better. Low-ranking males have worse cholesterol and stress hormone levels.
Stress almost certainly plays a role here, but it’s more complicated than one would think. Clearly, people in positions of high responsibility — like presidents and CEOs — face as much stress, if not more, than many others; high-power positions are often exceedingly stressful, as is competing to get them. But stress alone — even in high doses — doesn’t automatically damage health. It’s lack of control over stress that really matters.
Classic research by psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues has demonstrated that effect powerfully in several species. In studies, animals were yoked together and then given electric shocks. One animal of the pair could control when it received a shock, while the other one was shocked simultaneously, with no ability to predict or avoid the pain. The animals with more autonomy remained healthy, but those that lacked control became more susceptible to multiple illnesses, including cancers.
The Whitehall research in humans also confirmed that people with greater control over their jobs — even in the lower ranks — had better health than those who had less freedom at the office. And other studies find that even the illusion of control reduces stress-related health risks.
In this context, the American presidency is an interesting job to study. It certainly has high status, no question about it. However, the amount of control presidents wield over factors that profoundly influence their work — such as the economy or Congress — is often, shall we say, limited. It would be fascinating to know whether presidents who had a majority in Congress or those whose terms in office were buoyed by a robust economy lived longer.
As for the rest of us, no matter where we fall in the hierarchy, finding ways mitigate stress is a critical part of good health.