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A new study says elected politicians really do have shorter lifespans

Reuters/Michael Kappeler
What were we thinking?
By Svati Kirsten Narula
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Whether they’re mere figureheads or active change-makers, there’s no doubt that presidents, prime ministers, and other heads of state experience unique levels of stress, the detrimental effects of which on health and aging have been well-documented. Now a Harvard-affiliated study, published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) last week, has concluded that the stress of leading a nation likely cuts a person’s lifespan two years short.

The study examined only elected officials in western countries: 279 past and present leaders of Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US. Their survival rates were compared against the survival rates of 261 runners-up in the countries’ parliamentary and presidential elections, individuals who wanted to but were not chosen to lead. The average difference in lifespan was 2.7 years, in favor of the political losers.

Despite US president Barack Obama’s jokes about his gray hair, and his predecessor George W. Bush’s brush with heart disease, researchers have previously argued that—in America, at least—presidents tend to live as long as or longer than other men their age (even if their hair does go gray earlier). The seminal study on American presidents, however, by S. Jay Olshansky, relied on a small sample of only 34 presidents and compared their lifespans to those of people in the general population. As STAT News notes, American presidents are already statistically likely to outlive members of the country’s general population because of socioeconomic differences.

By analyzing data from 17 democracies, not just one, and keeping comparisons between those who won and those who lost national elections, the authors of this new study made “being elected to a nation’s highest office” as much of an isolated variable as possible. This was, to the authors’ knowledge, the first analysis of presidential lifespans with a broader scope than just the US.

Co-author Anupam B. Jena, a professor at Harvard Medical School, told STAT News that her team’s main explanation for leaders’ curtailed lifespans is not just stress but also lifestyle factors, such as frequent travel and lack of exercise, associated with their jobs.

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