Heads of state face risk of earlier death

Getting elected president may knock a few years off a person's lifespan, a new study suggests.

Ron Chapple Stock

There may be a silver lining for the candidates who come up short in next November's election. New research shows that elected heads of state face a greater risk of early death when compared to the runners-up they beat out.

It's a common narrative we often see play out when a youthful-looking candidate seems to age dramatically in a short amount of time after getting elected. It's often theorized that the pressure and responsibility of leading a nation takes a toll on health and leads to rapid aging.

But how does that notion hold up when looking at actual data? Researchers from Harvard Medical School set out to answer this question.

"There's been longstanding speculation that the stress of politics leads to premature aging as anecdotally seen in photos of presidents like Obama and Clinton during their tenures as president," senior study author Anupam Jena, associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, told CBS News. "One challenge with studying this issue is that one must pick the right comparator for presidents (or other world leaders) and look at enough countries to find something."

The study was published in the BMJ's Christmas issue, which traditionally features peer-reviewed studies on more unconventional topics.

Jena and his team decided runner-up candidates would be the most suitable population for comparison, under the assumption that they have similar access to health care and similar baseline risk of death as those who got elected. Previous research has found that U.S. presidents have no difference in life span than the general population, but the study authors argue that this is may actually disguise the toll the job takes on their health, since they'd have greater access to high-quality health care than the average person.

The researchers looked at 17 countries, including the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, to ensure they we had enough data to find meaningful results, Jena said.

They compared 279 nationally elected leaders from these nations to 261 candidates who weren't elected. The study group was made up of candidates in elections that took place from 1722 to 2015.

The analysis showed that those elected to head of government lived approximately 2.7 fewer years after their last election compared to the runner-up candidates.

"This could be due to the stress of governance or due to time constraints that prevent important investments in health such as exercise, healthy eating, etc," Jena said.

He pointed out that the study accounted for the fact that winning and losing candidates may differ in age at the time of election. The authors also included assassinations in their analysis, as they considered it a risk of the job, but "it turns out that these events are far less common than natural causes of death and therefore have no impact on our findings," Jena said.

"By comparing the lifespans of elected leaders with runners-up, we were able to calculate the mortality cost of winning elections and serving as head of state," co-author Andrew Olenski, research assistant in health care policy at the Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

So, despite Donald Trump's recently released doctor's note stating he would be the "healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency," his health in fact may be better off if he loses.

  • Ashley Welch On Twitter»

    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com