With Barack Obama turning 50 this week, attention focuses on how the stresses of presidency are aging him. The dumbest (but most common) way to examine this is to compare pictures from the 2007-08 campaign to how he looks today. This is ridiculous and meaningless, because we do not have a control group to see how he would look if he were in another job! Do you look the same as you did four years ago? A much better way to proceed is as we did in The Longevity Project, where we studied 1500 bright Americans who were first assessed as children in the 1920s. They were followed for their whole lives, and we studied how well they aged and how long they lived. To see how our findings might apply to President Obama (on his 50th birthday), I opened up the book and filled out the assessments -- the quizzes -- a person can use to see how he or she is doing on the long life trajectories; but of course I filled them out as the president might.
The first one is very easy. The Longevity Project found that one of the best predictors of long life is persistence and conscientiousness. Whatever else you think of Mr. Obama, there is no doubt that he strives and persists and plans and is about the least impulsive guy you can imagine! Top score. I then looked at marriage. Here, The Longevity Project found that a man who is suitable to a stable marriage and who gets and stays married to a supportive wife is very likely to live a long life. Check, Mr. Obama has that one nailed.
The Longevity Project found that if your parents divorce during your childhood, that can be a very significant threat to your later health and longevity; but if you have achieved success and feel a sense of accomplishment by young adulthood, then this added risk disappears, and in fact you have learned how to be resilient. Indeed, you may be better able to face the future. I would say that being president of the Harvard Law Review at age 29 counts as some degree of early success, wouldn't you?
Then there is the big issue of the great stresses and challenges of being president. Here, our work discovered one of its most important and amazing findings, namely that striving and pressing forward in a very difficult but meaningful job is not at all a threat to your health. Those who advanced steadily in their challenging careers, and had the power to make things happen, were helped, not harmed, by the stresses. In fact, many of those who worked the hardest lived the longest, especially if their work involved assisting others by working on something bigger than themselves. Naturally, it is hard to imagine advancing higher and being more involved in the lives of other people than being President of the United States.
The discoveries of The Longevity Project give us probabilities and cannot say with certainty how healthy a person will remain and how long any individual will live, but things are looking really good for President Obama, on the longevity front at least. A good scientific guess based on the findings of The Longevity Project is that the challenges of the presidency will help rather than hurt his health, and Mr. Obama likely has many more healthy decades ahead of him.
When we were updating the Facebook page on The Longevity Project, an interesting speculation arose. We have found that having lots of people in your social network--and here I mean the old face-to-face kind of social network -- is a very good predictor of health and long life. Nobody yet knows if having lots of friends in your online Internet social networks is going to be good for your health, but I noticed that the President is liked by over 22 million people on Facebook and has over 9 million followers on Twitter! Methuselah, watch out.
All of my analysis assumes that the President is not sneaking cigarettes in the Rose Garden. So keep a sharp eye out on his lung capacity when he blows out his birthday candles.