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Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

How Long Will Barack Obama Live? Premature Aging?

Are the stresses going to decimate President Obama?

Barack Obama turns 50 this week, and so we will be seeing pictures comparing the 2007-08 campaign images to how he looks today. This is a lame attempt to demonstrate that the stresses of the presidency are aging him. That approach is silly and meaningless because we do not have a control group to see how he would look if he were in another job, like corporate lawyer! Don't most people look much older at 50 than at 46? Do you look the same as you did four years ago?

Psychologists know that a much better way to proceed is to assess the overall aging trajectory. We did this in the Longevity Project, where we studied 1500 bright Americans who were first examined as children in the 1920s.They were followed for their whole lives, and we evaluated 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. Here are some of the results.

I started with personality. The Longevity Project found that one of the best predictors of long life is conscientiousness, especially persistence. 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.

Second, and very important for men, is 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, it seems Mr. Obama has that one down pat.

What about Obama's unusual childhood? 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 some 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 off. I would say that being president of the Harvard Law Review at age 29 counts as some degree of early success, wouldn't you?

OK, so let us get directly to the central issue of the great stresses and challenges of being president. Here, our work on The Longevity Project discovered one of its most important and startling 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. 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. But are times changing?

When I was updating the Facebook page on The Longevity Project, an interesting issue 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. But nobody yet knows if having lots of friends in your online Internet social networks is going to be good for your health; perhaps it has some negative, distracting effect. Nevertheless 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.


About the Author

Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.