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Higher risk of death for prime ministers

23% higher risk for leaders compared with runners-up, study suggests

Adrian O'Dowd

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Politicians who win general elections to become prime minister have a higher risk of death compared with runner-up candidates, according to a study published today in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.

However, an accompanying second study found that mortality among MPs and peers in the House of Lords was much lower than that of the general population over the past 65 years.

In the first study,* a team of US researchers wanted to test the theory that politicians elected to lead government can experience accelerated aging and premature death because of the stress of leadership and political life.

To do this, they compared survival of 279 nationally elected leaders from 17 countries with 261 unelected candidates who never served in office, from 1722 to 2015.

They then measured the number of years alive after each candidate’s last election, relative to what would be expected for an average individual of the same age and sex as the candidate during the year of the election.

After taking into account life expectancy at time of last election, they found that elected leaders lived 2.7 fewer years and had a 23% increased risk of death than runners-up.

Although there were some study limitations, the researchers concluded: “We found that heads of government had substantially accelerated mortality compared with runner-up candidates. Our findings suggest that elected leaders may indeed age more quickly.”

In the second study,** UK researchers examined mortality in 4,950 members of the two UK Houses of Parliament compared with the general population over a 65-year period from 1945-2011.

They compared the observed mortality in members with the expected mortality of the general population, matched to the same sex or age of the member in the year of entry to parliament.

Analysis of their results showed that the death rates of MPs were 28% lower than those of the general population, while Lords experienced 37% lower relative mortality.

In addition, the mortality gap between MPs and the general population widened significantly at least until 1999, suggesting that over this period MPs may have become less representative of the population they served, said the authors.

Mortality among Conservative MPs was lower than in MPs from other political parties, they noted, which could be due to underlying differences in social background.

The authors concluded: “Social inequalities are alive and well in UK parliamentarians, and at least in terms of mortality, MPs are likely to have never had it so good.”

* Olenski AR, Abola MV, Jena AB. Do heads of government age more quickly? Observational study comparing mortality between elected leaders and runners-up in national elections of 17 countries. BMJ 2015;351:h6424. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h6424

** Dennis J, Crayford T. Parliamentary privilege—mortality in members of the Houses of Parliament compared with the UK general population: retrospective cohort analysis, 1945-2011. BMJ 2015;351:h6563. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h6563

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