We see it happen all too often: The youthful candidate becomes, in a few short years, the grizzled head of state. But is this transformation evidence of normal aging or a health impact of being an elected head of state?
A team of researchers led by Anupam Jena, an HMS associate professor of health care policy, set out to test the theory that politicians elected to lead a country’s government may experience premature death. The team’s study was published December 14, 2015, in BMJ.
After adjusting for life expectancy at time of last election, the team found that elected leaders lived 2.7 fewer years and experienced a 23 percent greater risk of death compared to runners-up.
“This suggests that the stress of governing may substantially accelerate mortality for our elected leaders,” says Jena, who is also a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“By comparing the life spans of elected leaders with runners-up, we were able to calculate the mortality cost of winning elections and serving as head of state,” says co-author Andrew Olenski, an HMS research assistant in health care policy.
The researchers compared 279 nationally elected leaders from 17 countries to 261 runners-up who had never served in office. The study group was made up of candidates in elections that took place from 1722 to 2015.
The researchers determined the number of years each candidate lived after the last election they ran in and compared the results to the average life span of an individual of the same age and sex during the year of the election.
The researchers say that earlier research by others found no significant effect on the life expectancies of U.S. presidents, perhaps because the sample size was too small. In addition, presidents would be expected to live longer than the general population owing to their higher socioeconomic status alone. The failure of prior studies to detect a difference suggests that the mortality costs of serving as president may have been masked.