The Queen of England (age 95) recently celebrated her 70th anniversary on the throne. The average life expectancy in the UK is 81.3 years[1], and we all know that her longevity is the subject of many jokes. But is she that much of an odd outlier compared to other Heads of State?[2]

In this post I will consider only people born after 1895 who served as Heads of State (as indicated by Wikipedia). How many of them reached old age?

Let's start from the US. We could note that President Biden (age 79) has already reached the average life expectancy in the US (78.9 years[1]). What about his predecessors? Trump is 75. Obama is 60. George W. Bush is 75 too. Also Clinton is 75. All of them are still alive. Then we reach George H. W. Bush, died at age 94. Before him, Reagan died at 93. Jimmy Carter is still alive at 97. His predecessor Gerald Ford died at 93. We have to go back to Nixon (died at 81) to find a President died before 90. The only one who ruins the average is Lyndon Johnson, having died at 64. The last President born after 1895 was JFK, but since he was assassinated I'll exclude him from the statistics.

Fine, let's move somewhere else. What about Italy, with its 83.5 years[1] life expectancy? The current President Sergio Mattarella was just reconfirmed in charge for a second mandate, and he's already 80. His predecessor Giorgio Napolitano is 96, and he's still healthy enough to sit in the Senate (in Italy, former Presidents become Senator for life by default). His predecessor, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, died at 95. And before Ciampi there was Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, died at 93. Before him there was Francesco Cossiga, died at 82. His predecessor Sandro Pertini died at 93. Before him there was Giovanni Leone, also died at 93. His predecessor Giuseppe Saragat died at 89. The last president born after 1895 was Antonio Segni, died at 81.

Oh, and just to remain in Rome, Pope Francis is 85, and the former Pope Benedict XVI is still alive at 94. His predecessor John Paul II died at 84. John Paul I died at 65 (after only 33 days of pontificate), and Paul VI at 80.

 

More monarchs

King Felipe of Spain is 54; his predecessor Juan Carlos I is still alive at 84.

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands is 54 too. Before him there was Queen Beatrix (also still alive at 84), and before her there was Queen Juliana, died at 94.

King Philip of Belgium is currently 61, and his still living predecessor Albert II is already 87. Before him there was Baudouin, died at 62.

The King of Norway Harald V is 84, his predecessor Olav V died at 87.

The King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf is 75[3].

Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg is 66, and his predecessor Jean died at 98. Before them there was Grand Duchess Charlotte, who died at age 89.

 

More presidents

President of France Emmanuel Macron is 44 (this makes him the youngest of the whole list). His predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy are both alive at 67. Before them, Jacques Chirac died at 86, François Mitterrand at 79 and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing at 94. The last one born after 1895 was Georges Pompidou, who died at 62 while still in office.

President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier is 66. Three of his predecessors are alive: Joachim Gauck (age 82), Christian Wulff (age 62) and Horst Köhler (age 78). Johannes Rau died at 75. Roman Herzog died at 82. Richard von Weizsäcker died at 94. Karl Carstens died at 77. Walter Scheel died at 97. The last one born after 1895 is Gustav Heinemann, who died at 76.

President of Greece Katerina Sakellaropoulou is 65, her predecessor Prokopis Pavlopoulos is alive at 71, and his predecessor Karolos Papoulias died at 92. Before him there was Konstantinos Stephanopoulos, died at 90. And before him there was Konstantinos Karamanlis, died at 91. And before him there was Christos Sartzetakis, died at 92. Ioannis Alevras died at 83. Konstantinos Tsatsos died at 88. And Michail Stasinopoulos died at 99 (no more Presidents of Greece before this point, the Third Ellenic Republic started with Stasinopoulos).

President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is 73, his predecessor Aníbal Cavaco Silva is alive at 82, his predecessor Jorge Sampaio died at 81, and his predecessor Mário Soares died at 92. His predecessor António Ramalho Eanes is still alive at 87. Francisco da Costa Gomes died at 87. The last Portuguese President to be born after 1895 is António de Spínola, died at 86.

President of Slovenia Milan Kučan is 81. His predecessor Janez Stanovnik died at 97. His predecessor France Popit does not have a Wikipedia page, poor man. But in the page listing all the Presidents of Slovenia he's listed as "France Popit (1921-2013)", so he died at 92. Before Popit there was Viktor Avbelj, died at 79. And Sergej Kraigher died at 86 (no more Presidents of the Republic of Slovenia before this point). 

President of Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová is 48. Her predecessors are still alive: Andrej Kiska (age 59), Ivan Gašparovič (age 80), Rudolf Schuster (age 88). The first President of the Republic of Slovakia was Michal Kováč, died at 86.

President of Romania Klaus Iohannis is 62. All of his predecessors are still alive: Traian Băsescu (age 70), Ion Iliescu (age 90) and Emil Constantinescu (age 82).

President of Hungary János Áder is 62. His predecessor Pál Schmitt is alive (age 79). His predecessor László Sólyom is also alive (age 80). His predecessor Ferenc Mádl died at 80. Before him there was Árpád Göncz, first President of the Republic of Hungary, who died at 93.

President of Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski is 58. His predecessor Gjorge Ivanov is alive at 61. His predecessor Branko Crvenkovski is also alive (age 59). Before him there was Boris Trajkovski, but he died in a plane crash, so I'll throw him in the Not Count Basket along with JFK. The first President of Macedonia Kiro Gligorov died at 94.

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson is 53, his predecessor Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is alive at age 78, and before him there was Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, still alive at age 91. The last one born after 1895 is Kristján Eldjárn, died at 65.

 

Some statistics

Ok, we've finally arrived at 100 Heads of State[4] and I'm tired enough of copy-pasting Wikipedia links, let's try to do some basic statistics. I'll use age 90 as a totally arbitrary threshold for "being very old". Of those 100 people, 49 are still alive, and 6 of them are already older than 90. Among the remaining 51, we have 21 people died after 90. This is a lot.

I'll use this chart to extract the percentage of living people older than 90 by country. We obtain 0.8% for the US, 1.0% for the UK, 1.8% for Italy, 1.3% for Greece, 1.5% for France, 0.6% for Romania, and so on. Nowhere near the 12% (6/49) observed in our sample.

I couldn't find a similar graph for dead people, but our sample has a huge 41% (21/51) of people dead after 90, and I'm pretty sure that the general population die far younger on average (the highest life expectancy in the world is 84 at best).  

Did I just throw at you the Chinese Robber fallacy by cherry-picking a lot? Admittedly, I've considered just USA and Europe and n=100 is not huge, but "current or former head of state born after 1895" is a very small reference class. There are less than 200 nations in the world, and each of them can only have one Head of State at any given time. And if we restrict ourselves to "current or former head of state in the First World born after 1895", then I've probably mentioned at least 10% of them (depending of what we consider to be in the First World).

Do we have some sort of selection bias at work? The stronger effect I can think of is on starting age: among our 100 Heads of State, only Macron and Čaputová are younger than 50. Presidents younger than 40 are virtually unheard of, at least in Europe; in some cases there is an actual minimum age to be appointed (in Italy, for example, the President is legally required to be at least 50). Maybe choosing 50 years as another arbitrary threshold may lead to a fairer comparison?

I'll use this chart again, restricting ourselves to the slice of general population older than 50. In the US, 35% of the population is older than 50, so the percentage of people older than 90 among them is 2.3%[5]. For the UK we have 36.6% older than 50 (so, 2.7% older than 90 among them), for Italy we have 44% (leading to a good 4% of them older than 90). But we are still far from our 12%.

I don't think that we could have a similar selection bias for health conditions. I can buy that someone who's known to be chronically ill probably won't be appointed President, but Presidents are not explicitly selected for health (and monarch are not explicitly selected at all). So, what if we compare them with professional athletes? This study examined 15174 Olympic athletes who won medals between 1896 and 2010, and concluded that they lived an average of 2.8 years longer than the general population of the same age, gender and nationality. Still a smaller effect than ours. But in order to be fair we should restrict ourselves to people born after 1895 and not died before 50, so I'm going to do another Wikipedia tour.

Let's pick a sport. They say tennis is quite likely to promote longevity, fine, I'll stick with tennis. The International Tennis Hall of Fame lists 210 people who were very good at playing tennis, and were probably in better physical shape than any head of state.

*clicks through all the links*

Ok, of those 210 tennis players, 60 were born before 1895, so let's discard them. Other 8 were born after 1895 but died before reaching age 50, so let's discard them as well. We are left with 144 people. Now, try to guess how many of them reached at least age 90, and how many of those are still alive.

...

...

...

...

(Here's some space to let you formulate an hypothesis)

...

...

...

...

Have you guessed? Fine, here's my result: 70 of those tennis stars are still alive. But only 3 of them have already reached age 90: Dick Savitt (age 94), Frank Sedgman (also age 94) and Vic Seixas (age 98). Among the other 74, only 19 died after 90, which means ~21% (about half as much as our 41%).

So, what's going on? What other confounders could I have forgotten? Of course, there's always the elephant in the room: presidents and monarchs usually live in fancy palaces, surrounded by dozens of people ready to fulfill their every need. But is this really that much better for your longevity than being a random rich person?

I mean, you are not His Grace the Duke of Bedford, who could easily sit the whole day in his armchair at Woburn Abbey and sip some fine wine, knowing that no one cares about him. You are the friggin Head of the State, and your average day is not going to be very relaxing. Maybe you don't have the problem of deciding what to prepare for lunch, but you surely have much bigger decision problems on your desk. At the very least, you'll have to attend an endless number of ceremonies and celebrations across the country, and that alone should be stressful enough if you're already 80 or older.

I don't have a clear conclusion to draw for this post (we all know that correlation does not imply causation). But if you want to live longer, maybe becoming President is not the worst thing you could do.

 

  1. ^

    2019 estimate. Source: Our World in Data.

  2. ^

    With respect to her relatives, the age of Queen Elizabeth II is not so impressive: her husband died at age 99, and her mother at age 102. But they were not Heads of State, so I am not including them in the main post. 

  3. ^

    His predecessor Gustaf VI Adolf died at 90, and before him there was Gustav V, died at 92. But they were both born before 1895, so they are relegated to this footnote.

  4. ^

    Actually 102, but as I'm going to exclude JFK and Boris Trajkovski since the former was assassinated and the latter died in a plane crash. Maybe I shouldn't, since being the President is highly correlated with both assassination risk and taking a lot of planes. But even throwing them back in, the overall data does not change that much.

  5. ^

    35% of the population is at least 50, and the 0.8% of the population older than 90 obviously belong to the other category as well, so we just calculate (100 / 35) * 0.8 to obtain the percentage of people older than 50 who are also older than 90.

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I think you'll find these correlations in just about any major high status population. If you find becoming a head of state too difficult, you can just try becoming rich instead.

Actually, the true lesson is probably to give up smoking. Here's the table of correlations in the bottom quartile of income.

If I understand it correctly, the data in Bezzi's post proves a correlation and then infers a causation. I agree that common cause makes more sense than the implied causal relationship because "US president" is both high-status yet also very stressful.

There is one aspect of being president which is definitely causal: assassination risk. 4/46 US presidents have been assassinated.

The last President born after 1895 was JFK, but since he was assassinated I'll exclude him from the statistics…. Did I just throw at you the Chinese Robber fallacy by cherry-picking a lot?

Excluding assassinations (which have killed 9% of all US presidents so far) from the statistics constitutes cherry-picking.

Good point. But even including JFK the data does not change that much, we're still left with ~40% dead heads of state who died after 90. I've edited footnote 4.

Anyway, I didn't want to imply a causation. I don't literally believe that the mere fact of being President can magically increase your lifespan. But the correlation is very strong, these people probably don't spend a lot of time doing exercise, and yet they seem to outlive top tennis players on average.

I agree with Matthew Barnett that no one is particularly surprised to find that rich people live longer than poor people, but is this really enough to wipe off the President Effect? If I'm reading it correctly, Barnett's chart says 87.5 years as life expectancy at age 40 for top 1% income men. In my list there are only 6 women, so let's exclude them and compare the rest with our average rich man who die at 87.5.

Of our 96 heads of state, 45 are alive (7 of them are already older than 87.5). Of the other 51, I've counted 27 men died before 87.5 (this time I'm counting also JFK and the Macedonian guy died in a plane crash). This would left us with ~47% of dead people (24 men) who reached 87.5 before dying, consistently with the chart. 22 of those 24 men also reached age 90; this seems slightly better than the expected percentage from Gompertz Extrapolation reported in figure B, but maybe is just noise. 

Anyway, the study only considers the interval 2001-2014 in the US, but a good half of the heads of state were already dead in year 2001 (and they were obviously not in the US). I am not really sure how this can be taken into account.

How long have heads of state lived relative to almost heads of state? I recall several years ago hearing about https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/34077/1/543282147.pdf which finds that Nobel prize winners gained approximately two years over mere nominees. Concluding paragraph:

It might be argued that an approximately two- year gain in lifespan from winning a Nobel Prize is a small number of extra years. However, the controls here are extraordinarily successful scientists. By any usual standard, all are high-status individuals. If the idea that social status improves lifespan is truly correct, the size of the effect may in a practical sense be larger in a more normal population of people.

Tangentially regarding "I'm tired enough of copy-pasting Wikipedia links", Wikidata is in theory a great resource for this kind of quick research, though it has a learning curve (which I am by no means far along, and haven't used enough to progress) which includes dealing with multiple values, relationships that aren't exactly what one wants for the question at hand, etc. For example, a naive query https://w.wiki/4pdJ for the longest lived (deceased) heads of state would need to filter out conflicting or otherwise untrustworthy dates and non-national level states to have more expected results.

For example, a naive query https://w.wiki/4pdJ for the longest lived (deceased) heads of state would need to filter out conflicting or otherwise untrustworthy dates and non-national level states to have more expected results.

That query seems to include deprecated (by Wikidata to be judged as wrong) dates of death. A better query would only look at truthy values (those values with the best rank). 

Sure, here's a version using truthy birth and death dates, though still very imperfect https://w.wiki/4q4Q

How long have heads of state lived relative to almost heads of state?

Good question. Unfortunately, "almost head of state" is a quite fuzzy reference class. Who would you include in this list?

In the US vice-presidents that never became president would be one reference class. Government ministers might make another good reference class. 

We could note that President Biden (age 79) has already reached the average life expectancy in the US (78.9 years).

If Biden had died at 75, he wouldn't have become president, and you wouldn't be considering him.

How much of what you're noticing is explained by people generally getting pretty old before they become a head of state? You say "monarchs are not explicitly selected at all", but they are selected for age: you have to outlive the other claimants.

True, but Biden is the oldest President in US history and you generally don't have to be that old to become head of state. Half of the current heads of state I've mentioned are younger than 60.

Anyway, it's true that many countries have legal restrictions on the minimum age of the President; the highest I've found is Italy (at least age 50). Considering that young people don't get elected President very often no matter the requirements, I think that age 50 should be a decent threshold for a fairer comparison (that's why I've compared the heads of state with the general population older than 50).

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