Americans are used to watching their presidents get grayer and more wrinkled as the years drag on. Of course, these signs of aging aren’t fatal, but the factors driving them — stress and sleepless nights — may actually cause world leaders to have a shorter life span.
Which means that the runners-up of world elections shouldn’t be too broken up about their loss — their lives may be a bit longer as a result.
An expansive statistical study on the life span of world leaders examined the lives of 300 presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors over three centuries in 17 countries found that a shorter existence is the consolation prize for winning an election. Despite this finding, research on the effect of leadership on health and longevity is rarely consistent.
“The increase in mortality among those leading a nation, relative to others in politics, may stem from the greater responsibility and stress of the job,” senior author Anupam Jena told Reuters. “The decisions are more impactful, the spotlight is greater, and I suspect the job is even more strenuous.”
According to the New York Times, when compared with the losers of elections, the victorious ones lived almost three fewer years and ran a 23 percent greater risk of premature death. A previous study agreed with the idea that leaders have a shorter life span, concluding that they age twice as quickly as normal Joes. But another found no connection.
However, the idea that heads of state live far more stressful lives than the rest of us seems pretty logical. One need only to imagine Barack Obama’s sleepless nights, economics researcher Andrew Oswald noted.
“I imagine Mr. Obama is woken more often in the middle of the night than any of us would like or could tolerate. The runners-up are plainly not `losers’ but ultimately they do not have to carry the responsibility of knowing the national buck stops with them.”
In the U.S., the research found that presidents lived 12 years after their last election and their runners-up lived 19 years. The authors accounted for the fact that the winners are often older, and concluded that they lose almost six years off their lifespan.
Jena, the study’s author, has a theory as to why heads of state die prematurely: stress releases hormones like cortisol, and that can accelerate some diseases, such as heart disease, and lead to a shorter time on Earth.
“Reducing stress would arguably slow the acceleration of aging but may not fully reverse it,” he said.
And, of course, they may have a shorter lifespan that the rest of us because they’re more likely to be assassinated.
The study examined the shorter lives of elected world leaders to those of their defeated opponents from 1722 to 2015 in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S.
A total of 279 leaders and 261 runners-up were studied, and researchers determined how long they lived after their last election and compared it to the average life span of a person of the same age, sex, and country during the election year.
The author of one of those previous studies, aging expert S. Jay Olshansky, was disappointed with this new finding. (By the way, his stats revealed that U.S. presidents live longer than most American men their age.)
Olshansky wasn’t pleased that the researchers didn’t account for assassinations (or “being at the wrong end of a gun”) as a cause of death not related to aging. The study also didn’t provide a measure for “accelerated aging.” Gray hair and wrinkles — the visible changes the American public notices year after year in its harried presidents — isn’t a proper marker because this is part of getting old for everyone, leaders or not.
Interestingly, world leaders are generally derived from the top 1 percent of their societies and therefore, start off their days with a healthy advantage. Being in office, however, cuts that advantage and ensures they’ll live about as long as normal citizens.
[Photo by Alexander Gardner/Getty Images]