A pox on political leaders? Electoral winners may be losers in the longevity contest

Donald Trump, Ben Carson and other presidential hopefuls might want to reconsider their campaigns in the wake of a study that says elected heads of state have lower life expectancies than the people who lose elections.

Donald Trump, Ben Carson and other presidential hopefuls might want to reconsider their campaigns in the wake of a study that says elected heads of state have lower life expectancies than the people who lose elections.

(Morry Gash / AP)

Ever notice how robust and chipper former Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain are compared with a graying President Obama these days?

If candidates for the highest political office in the land only knew the results of new research, they might be happier about losing an election. The findings might even whittle the outsize pool of Republicans vying for the job.

A study conducted with nearly three centuries of data (but also with tongue planted firmly in cheek) has found that after an election for parliamentary leadership or the presidency, losers lived four more years than did the winners who went on to serve as heads of state.


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After accounting for the fact that winners were on average a bit older than losers, the study found that politicians who bore the yoke of power live 2.7 fewer years than did hopefuls who failed to get the people’s nod.

The authors’ diagnosis: Despite the thrill of electoral victory, getting elected to a country’s highest office “may lead to accelerated aging due to stress of leadership and political life.”

That claim has been controversial. Dr. Michael Roizen, a preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, has asserted that the typical president ages two years for every year he is in office (no data are available -- yet -- on how a woman would age in office). To draw this conclusion, Roizen has used presidential medical records from the 1920s through today.

But in the journal JAMA in 2011, human longevity expert S. Jay Olshansky came to the opposite conclusion, drawing on the health and life spans of presidents from George Washington to the present. Olshanksy, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois, found that 23 of 34 presidents who died of natural causes “lived beyond the average life expectancy for men of the same age when they were inaugurated, even if they hypothetically aged at twice the normal rate while in office.”

The new study appears in the BMJ’s Christmas issue, which once a year treats readers to a collection of papers that feature silly subjects plumbed with high rigor and serious subjects explored with fanciful methods. Last year, a widely cited paper conducted a rigorous test of “male idiot theory” and concluded that, indeed, men are idiots.


The latest research adds to a surprisingly robust line of research: whether winning accolades, honors and elections actually confers longevity. Past work in this field has found that Academy Awards winners, those who win Emmy Awards and Nobel Prize laureates tend to live longer than do nominees who did not win.

Inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame, found one 2013 paper, did not fare so well. Those granted baseball’s highest honor died on average two years younger than did their peers who were nominated but not inducted. (This finding might come as timely comfort to Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, finalists for the Heisman Trophy who this weekend lost in a a squeaker to University of Alabama running back Derrick Henry.)

Alas, research has not yielded a clear pattern when the longevity of senior political winners and losers was compared. The current study sought to surmount the methodological shortcomings that plagued those earlier efforts. To do so, it drew on close to three centuries of electoral results in Austria, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United States.

The researchers’ earliest example drew from the 1722 parliamentary election in Britain.

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