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Elected Leaders Have Shorter Lifespans, Higher Risk of Death, Study Shows

By Christina N. Neckermann, Contributing Writer

Political aspirants beware: heads of state live 2.7 years less than runner-up candidates who never serve in office, according to a December study led by a Harvard Medical School professor.

Anupam B. Jena, associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, led the study, which was published in the British Medical Journal. Observing the rapid onslaught of wrinkles and gray hair in many a once-youthful presidential hopeful, people have long speculated that presidents in office age faster than the average citizen, Jena said.

“Looking at presidents before they take office and when they leave has been used by some people as anecdotal evidence of accelerated aging,” Jena said.

Yet despite apparent popular agreement, scientific discussions of this phenomenon were far from conclusive. A 2011 study found no evidence that presidents die sooner than anyone in the general population. In the same year, however, other news outlets cited wellness experts who estimated that the typical American president ages two years for every one served in office.

Jena and his team recognized what they thought were a number of flaws in the experimental approach of the 2011 study that might have contributed to its surprising conclusion.

“It’s intuitive that you shouldn’t compare a world leader to the general population,” he said. He added that presidents should be expected to outlive average life expectancies given their higher socioeconomic status and superior access to health care.

The 2011 investigation also focused on American presidents alone rather than examining a larger sample of world leaders. Such a small group, Jena said, was hardly “enough to find a statistically significant effect.”

The research team hoped to remedy these faults with a new approach. Rather than using the general population as a standard for comparison, the researchers thought it would be more revealing to examine runner-up candidates as political leaders of a similar socioeconomic status.

The team also examined a broader sample of world leaders than existing studies had used. Pooling historical election data from 17 different countries and spanning nearly three centuries, the researchers came up with 540 suitable candidates. They then observed the number of years the candidates lived after their last election relative to historical life expectancies for people of the same age and sex.

In addition to the shorter life expectancy the study discovered, a proportional hazards test the researchers conducted found that successful candidates also had a 23 percent increase in mortality risk.

The researchers said they were not surprised by their findings.

“When so many people think that something is happening, my a priori belief is that it’s probably happening,” Jena said.

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