You need to look no further than President Obama's mug to know that leading a country is no easy task. Yes, you get access to fun parties, a private jet, and staff to take care of all your every need and whim, from a 24-hour cook and fitness trainer to a full medical team.
But those benefits don't necessarily outweigh the enormous stress that comes with being a world leader.
A new study published in the British Medical Journal tried to quantify just how much of a toll all that pressure takes.
The researchers compared 279 federal leaders in 17 countries with a control group: 261 candidates who tried but never made it to office. The elections examined covered a long period of time, from 1722 to 2015.
After adjusting for a candidate's age and life expectancy at election time, they found a significant gap in mortality: Elected leaders lived 2.7 years less and had a higher risk of death compared with the runners-up. So being head of state was associated with dying younger.
Other studies that have been published before this one have been mixed on whether a leadership role really cuts down on life expectancy. So the researchers behind this study, led by Anupam Jena, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, wanted to look at the question in a more robust way. Instead of comparing the lifespan of a president with life expectancy in the general population, or studying a small number of leaders, they wanted to look at many presidents and measure them against people who were like them — other candidates.
"People who run in elections will have higher socioeconomic status and better access to health care than the general population," Jena explained. "So we wanted to look at people who were probably in the same socioeconomic status as the leader — a candidate who happened to not win the election."
Let's not forget, however, that world leaders are a privileged set. They may die sooner than their unelected counterparts, but they usually outlive average life expectancies.
Jana emphasized that this is an observational study, so it can't explain why they found the difference. But this is his best explanation: "Leading a country is not only extraordinarily stressful and exhausting mentally and physically, which by itself would confer adverse health outcomes, but presidents also have limited time to take care of their health and have a healthy lifestyle." Both of those factors could contribute to the mortality toll shown in the study.
Now, what about assassinations? The researchers did account for those, but they're so uncommon that when they were excluded from their analysis, the results didn't change. Jana said, "Natural causes of death are by far the most common cause of death."