GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 26, 2012

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

On the Mend Joe DiVincenzo
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — 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.

The cells of the human body divide and replicate quickly when we’re young — that’s why the skin of a child is soft and why “younger” people heal faster on the average. Over time, this process slows considerably, and we begin to acquire problems with various organ systems. Vanity aside, internal aging is much worse for you.

Not surprisingly, stress hormones have been directly linked to shortened telomeres — just as relaxation techniques and other healthy lifestyle habits have been correlated with lengthened telomeres. It’s very likely that, in the future when an infant is born, physicians will be able to tell us exactly — to the day — how long the child will live.

But it is not this day — in fact, we’re far from it. According to the telomere theory, it’s practically impossible for a man to plow through the political mine fields of our country’s highest office for years, balance the weight of the world economy, guide millions of lives through war and live to a ripe old age of eighty or more.

Perhaps that’s comforting though — to know that a stern constitution and a good resolve could help us beat the odds and bend appropriately to the competing pressures of life versus genetics, and that our fate cannot yet truly be measured.

It’s only a matter of time before someone finds the fountain of youth, but it’s not likely to happen before this election — or the next.

So, until then, we’ll watch our presidents on television and marvel at how fast they’ve aged — and probably go check ourselves out in a mirror during a commercial break.

Gloucester resident Joe DiVincenzo is a physical therapist and clinical specialist in manual therapy. He writes “On the Mend” weekly. Questions may be submitted by email to joedivincenzo@comcast.net.