President Obama has really aged over the past seven years, hasn't he? Then again, pretty much every two-term president looks visibly older by the time he leaves office. Does that simply reflect the passage of time, or does the burden of responsibility speed up the aging process?
Newly published research, which utilizes three centuries worth of data from 17 countries, points to the latter.
The paper, which was just published in the BMJ, finds that the post-office lifespans of elected heads of state are, on average, significantly shorter than those of their losing opponents.
"After adjustment for life expectancy, elected leaders lived 2.7 fewer years than runners-up."
"This suggests that the stress of governing may substantially accelerate mortality for our elected leaders," said Anupam Jena, associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the paper, in a press release.
Jena and his colleagues analyzed death records of 380 people who had run for their nation's top elected office and either won or lost. They came from 17 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada; the earliest figures were taken from the British parliamentary election in 1722.
The researchers looked at the age of each person at the time of their final election, and the age at which they died.
"Without adjustment for life expectancy at the time of the last election," they write, "elected leaders lived 4.4 fewer years than runners-up. However, elected leaders were also, on average, 3.8 years older in the year of their last election compared with runners-up."
"After adjustment for life expectancy, elected leaders lived 2.7 fewer years than runners-up." This, they note, is a "substantive increase in mortality."
The researchers worked under the assumption that the candidates' socioeconomic status was roughly equal and thus did not influence mortality rates in favor of one over the other. They conceded this may not be entirely true in nations such as Britain, where Labor Party leaders often come from working-class backgrounds.
Nevertheless, this multi-nation approach produced a much larger dataset than those of previous studies that simply looked at U.S. presidents and produced mixed results. "Our findings," the researchers conclude, "suggest that elected leaders may indeed age more quickly."
So if you're a politician who wants to live a long life, perhaps you should consider staying in the legislature. A second, unrelated study, also published in the BMJ, looked at 5,000 members who served in the two U.K. Houses of Parliament from 1945 to 2011. It found that the mortality rate among members of the House of Commons was 28 percent lower than that of the general population. Members of the House of Lords, which is mainly populated by better-educated, upper-class people, did even better; their mortality rate was 37 percent lower than the populace as a whole.
While we shouldn't read too much into these findings, together they suggest rising to a position of political power may be a net positive for one's health—until you get to the very top.
Clearly, Michelle Obama would be wise to insist her husband stay on that healthy diet she has been advocating as First Lady—even once he's out of office.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.