A word of warning to all the little girls and boys who say they want to grow up to be president of the United States: Don’t do it if you want to live as long as you can.
And if you’re running for president now, and you’re on the older side, just know that you might be hastening your end.
That’s the conclusion of a new study that found leading a nation knocks more than two years off a head-of-state’s life.
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“We’re reasonably confident that there is a difference between elected leaders and unelected leaders in terms of mortality,” said Anupam B. Jena, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, who coauthored the report with Andrew Olenski, a research assistant at the school, and Matthew Abola, a medical student at Case Western Reserve University.
So even if Donald Trump’s doctor says he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” the diagnosis might not sound so rosy after a few years in the White House.
The idea that political leadership leads to less longevity has been around for a long time. Before-and-after stills of President Obama and George W. Bush, graying and wrinkled after years on the job, have been popular memes in the Internet age. Obama jokes about his gray hair. Bush underwent heart surgery in 2013, and National Journal reported that one the former president’s arteries was 95 percent blocked.
But for this analysis, published Monday in The BMJ, a leading medical journal, the authors did something different to quantify a theory that has been widely believed but difficult to prove.
Rather than compare a president or prime minister to their country’s general population — whom they are statistically likely to outlive because of their higher socioeconomic status — the researchers pit them against the person they defeated in their elections to their nation’s highest office. The researchers also broadened their scope by looking at presidents and prime ministers in 17 relatively stable Western democracies, rather than limiting the study to the United States.
The thinking was that the approach would help increase their confidence that the difference in the political leaders’ lifespans really was because they were running a country, not for other reasons.
And indeed, after adjusting as well as they could for things like life expectancy — and screening out the occasional dictator, since the study was supposed to be about elected leaders — the researchers found that heads of state lived 2.7 fewer years than the opponents they beat.
The authors openly acknowledged that they couldn’t identify exactly why presidents don’t live as long as their unelected rivals. But there is one obvious culprit: Stress. Its ravages on the human body are one of medical science’s most well-documented facts.
Another related but distinct possibility, Jena said, is that the hectic schedule that presidents must keep prevents them from eating as healthy or exercising as much as they otherwise could.
“All of those you can think of as mortality costs that come with the job,” he said.
Their findings arrive in the midst of a presidential campaign in which age and health could play an outsized role. Several leading contenders like Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders are nearing or into their 70s. Some of their rivals, most notably Marco Rubio, are — intentionally or not — using their youth to campaign on a message of bringing “a new generation” to the White House.
Voters generally say that a candidate’s health is very important to their ability to do the job. Presenting a clean bill of health “is kind of considered a necessary prerequisite for running for president,” said Carter Eskew, who was a top aide to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
But as this new research reinforces, while they might be healthy when they check into the White House, they won’t be healthy when they check out.