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Wear and Tear: Why the Presidency is Hazardous to Obama's Health

03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sitting U.S. presidents age notoriously faster than regular folks, and just a year into his presidency, Barack Obama is clearly no exception. While still lean and trim, the President's laugh-lines are noticeably deeper, his jowls definitely droopier and his close-cropped coif undeniably speckled with silver. Even some of his biggest supporters have begun to notice.

"I've seen President Obama gray more in past year than during the two years I followed him on the campaign trail," observes Amy Rice, co-director of HBO's Obama campaign-pic By The People. "I guess it comes with the territory."

Yet while the external effects of the Oval Office may be literally written on his face, far lesser-known is the damage all that endless stress is having on 48 year-old Obama's insides. From increased blood pressure to decreased libido, thinning skin to thickening arteries, the Presidency is a 24/7 stress-inducer rapidly aging both body and mind.

"Our research suggests a president ages two years for every one year he is in office," observes Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Real Age: Are You as Young as You Can Be?. "And this can certainly accelerate in the first year."

So as Barack Obama gears up for year two, what exactly are the internal side-effects of all that nonstop Presidential tension?

  • Cardiovascular problems are the main result of prolonged stress as evidenced by the numerous presidents suffering heart attacks in office. Often the coronaries were kept from the media. "Johnson certainly had heart problems, WIlson suffered two strokes in 1918, and Eisenhower apparently had a heart attack in 1953 that was never admitted," says Clemson University Prof. James A. McCubbin, a scholar of presidential health. "This is part of the reason why 20 percent of all presidents die while in office."

  • Although often difficult to diagnose, extreme-stress can affect mood and mental acuity, says Manhattan psychologist Barry Richman, MD. "Increased anxiety, early-morning awakening, chronic insomnia are all possibilities," Richman says. Heightening the risks, Richman adds, is "Obama's relative newness to politics, though he does appear to be a quick study."

  • Stress induces the body's "fight or flight" response which can alter the immune system and leave it vulnerable to attack. "Common colds, viral infections even H1N1 are all possible results," explains Stephanie McClellan, MD, co-author of the new book So Stressed.

  • Keeping that immune system suppressed is cortisol, a hormone released during moments of high-tension to restore body-balance, but harmful in case of prolonged exposure. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to bone loss, diabetes and thinning skin, explains Dr. Roizen. "By weakening immunal responses, cortisol can also hinder our body's cancer-fighting cells." Thinner skin, meanwhile, provides an easier entryway for sicknesses and infections.

  • All that cortisol can also leave the body in a quasi-state of continued inflammation, Dr. McClellan adds. "This is taking place on a cellular level, and can result in tooth decay, gum disease and other oral-care problems."

  • Along with anxiety, presidential stress can afflict far greater damage on a president's mental health, explains Prof. McCubbin. "George Washington clearly showed signs of dementia," he says. Indeed, with neurons less able to repair themselves, there are a range of more immediate risks which can include impaired memory and lack of concentration. "Stress can leave us more easily distracted," Dr. Roizen explains. "This makes you more accident prone especially if you're driving -- though the President isn't doing much of that these days."

  • When accidents do occur, heightened stress can also make it harder for the body to recover. "Stress shortens telomeres," says Dr. Roizen. "These are then end-point on DNA which keep chromosomes healthy and able to repair themselves." Much like the tails of Avatar's mythical Na'avi, telomeres must unite for cells to heal. "Shortened telomeres mean every injury is harder for the body to repair."

  • In the midst of extreme stress, the last thing the male body thinks about is reproduction, says McClellan. "The focus is on self-survival, not survival of the species," she explains. The result: Lower sperm count, reduced sperm motility and a possible decrease in libido. "I don't claim to know about the President's sex life," she continues, "but performance can definitely be altered."

  • The theory that stress is the main cause of ulcers is no longer exactly precise. Ulcers, actually, can result from the presence of the Helicobacter pylori bacteria in the stomach. While 80 percent of those infected with H. pylori never remain symptomatic, "researchers have found that stress was a major cause of those who do develop ulcers," according to McClellan. If Pres. Obama is an H pylori carrier, he should certainly be concerned about developing ulcers.

Despite all this doom and gloom, President Obama is well-positioned to emerge from the Oval Office with relatively little permanent damage beyond that grey hair. For one thing, he surrounds himself family and friends, the most important stress-buster available. "That supportive relationship with Michelle is the main thing he has in his favor," says Dr. Richman.

Most important, with his penchant for arugula and fondness for fitness, Obama "came into the White House already doing all the right things," observes Roy Johnson, editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness magazine. "He may have his cheat foods just like the rest of us," Johnson adds. But if he keeps up those basketball games and sticks to those gourmet greens, "Pres. Obama could very well leave Washington as healthy as he arrived."