How Not to Report Science

One of the stories in the news today is about a study showing that no, US presidents don’t have their lifespans shortened by the rigors of office. The AP writes:

Using life expectancy data for men the same age as presidents on their inauguration days, the study found that 23 of 34 presidents who died of natural causes lived several years longer than expected.

This set off little skeptical alarm bells in my head. And indeed, a few paragraphs later, we find:

Given that most of the 43 men who have served as president have been college-educated, wealthy and had access to the best doctors, their long lives are actually not that surprising, [study author S. Jay Olshansky] said.

I haven’t found the text of the study in question, but LiveScience writes:

“To me, it’s a classic illustration of the benefits of socioeconomic status,” Olshansky told LiveScience. “All but 10 of the presidents were college-educated, they were all wealthy, and they all had access to medical care.”

So yeah, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but I suspect that being able to afford living in a neighborhood where you’re not going to get shot by a drug dealer, and getting regular checkups at Walter Reed may have a teensy bit to do with one’s life expectancy.

So really, what this story tells us is that the stress of the presidency, when combined with good lifestyle and health care, is not enough to lower a man’s life expectancy to the national average. What it doesn’t say is what effect the presidential lifestyle has on people’s health. For that, it would be necessary to compare presidents’ life spans to those of people of comparable wealth and access to health care. From the remarks above, I suspect that Olshansky understands this perfectly well, but I don’t know whether that study has been done.

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