Just the other day, I heard someone say that President Obama was looking old. "That job really does a number on you!"
It seems to be true. There are plenty of before and after photographs that seem to show how presidents often age dramatically while they are in office. A commonly quoted "fact" is that while in office, presidents age twice as fast as other men their age due to stress.
But is it true? It's hard to ignore the many examples of a graying and more haggard appearing president just a few years after inauguration. Sometimes it's striking.
Still, according to a new study, the idea that presidents age faster than other people is a myth.
Sure, presidents age during office. But so does everyone else! If you think about a president’s time in office, there may be four to eight years of his life passing by at a time when age tends to show. Hair turns grey, wrinkles become more obvious and the stress of the job may make it hard to appear youthful and energetic.
Besides stress, could there be other reasons presidents look older than expected? I have a theory: They may have less incentive to keep up appearances as the years of a presidency go by. Photographs taken after a while in office are often compared to photos of a younger candidate on the campaign trail, when every appearance was "prepped" by handlers, make-up artists and media consultants. From some photos I've seen, I wonder if some presidents stopped coloring their hair at some point after their inauguration.
Presumably, if being president ages you faster than normal, your lifespan would be shortened. That is, if you're aging faster, you'll not only look older, but you also won't live as long.
An analysis of past presidents published in the December 7, 2011 Journal of the American Medical Association looked at this very question.
Researchers looked at the ages at the time of death for presidents who died of natural causes. Then they compared those ages with the expected lifespans of men the same age as when these presidents were sworn into office. Their ages at death were also compared with their expected age of death based on the assumption they'd aged twice the normal rate while in office. This analysis found that:
None of this proves that being president has no effect on aging. Maybe presidents do age faster than others but this effect could be offset by other factors asssociated with better health: wealth, a healthy diet, high education levels and having access to the best medical care.
Given the grueling pace and length of presidential campaigns, those with poor health might be less inclined to run for president. So, it's possible that presidential candidates come into office healthier than others their age. And since the average age of a new president is 55 years old, these men have already survived well into adulthood without succumbing to some of the diseases and conditions that reduce longevity.
Still, this study raises the important (and well-worn) concept that you can’t always go by appearances. That is, you can't necessarily estimate how fast a president is aging (or predict his lifespan) just by looking at photographs of him at the beginning and end of his time in office.
We don't have precise ways to determine how fast a person is aging. In fact, the idea that presidents supposedly age twice as fast as others has never been proven. And this new analysis suggests that the "advanced aging" theory assumed to affect all presidents is a myth.
The usual explanation for why presidents age faster than others is that they are under constant and high levels of stress with little social support to help them cope with it.
But this is only a theory and would be hard to prove. For one thing, stress is hard to define. Sure, presidents are under significant stress. But many people thrive on stress. In fact, it's likely that people who have reached the highest levels of elected office deal with stress better than most. And many of the assumptions we make about stress — that it turns hair grey or causes wrinkles — are based more on intuition than scientific evidence.
Presidents may not like their "end-of-the-term" photograph as much as those taken during their campaigns or inaugurations. But many aging adults don't like their current driver's license photo compared with the last one! Aging is a fact of life and different people show it more than others.
From what we know of past presidents, no one should assume that holding this country's highest office (or another highly stressful job) will take a toll on their physical health or longevity.
The idea that presidents age faster than others may be a good example of a medical myth that will likely persist despite the absence of evidence. After all, most people think pictures don't lie. But, sometimes they do.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.