By analyzing historical data, scientists have shown that politicians, an example of an elite group, have enjoyed longer than average life expectancy since about 1950 .
The elite lives longer
Historical trends in health and mortality can teach us a lot about the present. It is common knowledge that life expectancy at birth has increased immensely during the last two centuries due to advancements in things like medicine, access to clean water, and sanitation. Today, income and education correlate positively with life expectancy (and with each other). The elite simply live longer.
Have things always been that way? In this study, the researchers used historical data to answer this question. While several studies already exist in this field, they are mostly confined to a single country, and the data is sparse. The challenge was to find a group of people who represent the elite and about whom reliable data exists. Politicians fit the bill well: due to the public character of their job, dates of their birth and death are usually known.
The gap opens
The researchers analyzed data on more than 57,000 politicians in 11 countries, starting from the early 19th century. They found that the difference in life expectancy at the age of 45 (the average age of the start of a political career over the observed period) between politicians and the rest of the population had been minimal up until the mid-20th century, when the paths began to diverge in favor of politicians. The US, a country that had no gap at all until about 1920, quickly opened the biggest gap of all countries. While in most other countries, the gap started closing again in the recent couple of decades, in the US, it remains mostly unchanged.
While it is tempting to attribute the results solely to societal inequalities, the researchers also suggest other possible explanations. For instance, decades of widespread smoking had a significant impact on life expectancy. The hazards of smoking began to be taken seriously in the second half of the 20th century, and it is not impossible that politicians were among the first to quit, both out of health concerns and to project a more positive image. The prevalence of male politicians was also accounted for in the study.
The wider context
Prior to the emergence of modern medicine, high social standing probably provided little advantage for health, at least in adulthood. It might have even been the opposite, as the elite gorged uncontrollably on calorie-rich, processed food that we now know to be unhealthy, and obesity was sometimes perceived as a sign of status. Whole new diseases, such as gout, also known as the “disease of kings”, emerged out of the lavish lifestyle of the rich , and atherosclerosis was probably widespread.
Meanwhile, common people consumed simple, non-processed, and mainly plant-based diets, which is in line with today’s best practices . The medicine of the day was equally useless or even harmful for both commoners and the elite ; therefore, access to healthcare might have been a disadvantage. According to a well-established theory, George Washington died of massive bloodletting rather than of the infection this bloodletting was supposed to treat.
To sum things up, income and social status might not have helped life expectancy in previous centuries. Despite the obvious hardships of life, common people might have been more protected from age-related diseases. Yet, during the second half of the last century, medicine made strides that dramatically increased life expectancy for adults. For instance, effective therapies for cardiovascular diseases emerged, with the educated elite both more willing and more able to enjoy them. The educated and the wealthy were also the first to appreciate healthy lifestyles.
The US versus other countries
In the US, life expectancy is low compared to most other developed countries, and the inequality-fueled gaps in life expectancy are wide. While across the developed world, life expectancy continues to rise, albeit slowly, in the US, this increase has all but stopped. Moreover, in certain demographics, such as white men, life expectancy began to decline , which is unprecedented for a Western country.
It is probably not a coincidence that in this study, the US fared worse than the other countries. It would be reasonable to suggest that higher inequality in wealth, as well as in access to healthcare and education, translates into wider gaps in life expectancy between the elite and the rest of the population.
Many geroscientists note that if our goal is to increase lifespan and healthspan, there are low-hanging fruits that are independent of advancements in medicine. Easing access to healthcare, education, and physical activity while promoting and incentivizing healthy food habits can bring gains in QALY (quality-adjusted life years) that scientists developing the current generation of geroprotectors can only dream of.
While life expectancy has been on the rise for decades, it is important to remember that not everyone has benefited equally from this longevity revolution. By providing a valuable historical outlook, this study reminds us once again of the socioeconomic context of life extension.
 Clarke, P. M., Tran-Duy, A., Roope, L. S., Stiles, J. A., & Barnett, A. G. (2022). The comparative mortality of an elite group in the long run of history: an observational analysis of politicians from 11 countries. European journal of epidemiology, 1-9.
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