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October 26, 2012

On the Mend: So much for any presidential fountain of youth

If you’ve watched any of the presidential debates, or if you’ve even walked by a TV in the last six months, you may have noticed that our commander-in-chief doesn’t look as spry as he did four years ago.

It has been said many times before that the presidency ages a man fast and that our presidents age before our eyes.

But is it true? Do presidents really lose years faster than the rest of us?

It all depends on how you look at it — and that’s no pun.

From a longevity standpoint, it would seem that our eyes deceive us. Most presidents (excluding those assassinated) well outlived the life expectancy of their time. But that shouldn’t surprise you — throughout our country’s history, most of our top-level leaders have been wealthy and had access to the best medical care of their eras. Furthermore, it’s well documented that privileged people live longer and healthier lives than the average working man — sorry, it’s a fact.

Well then, what about those grey hairs and wrinkles? As it turns out, both of these items on the checklist are strongly correlated with high levels of stress, but very weakly associated with genuine aging of the body — which makes the author of this column very happy.

The issue is far from settled, however, and presidents do indeed appear considerably older as the months and years pass.

A prime example is Bill Clinton at the end of his second term. Aside from the obvious physical differences manifested by his face and body, he had a significant cardiac event. Coincidence? Probably not — just ask the telomere.

In 2009, a Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded for research leading to the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres, also known as DNA end-caps. The length of these little building blocks determines how “young” we are — and how long we live.

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