Longevity of U.S. Presidents

Ed Uthman, MD

Diplomate, American Board of Pathology

Last updated 2 Sep 2000

Everyone knows that the average life span of humans has increased markedly in the 20th century, but has it increased for everyone? An informal study of U.S. presidents may yield some surprising answers.

My aim is to look at the effect of medical advances over the last two centuries on the longevity of those who are most likely to have access to those advances. I think presidents make an interesting (if small) sample because of their demographic uniformity: all are white male politicians, almost all are military veterans, and presumably all had sufficient wealth and/or prestige to command whatever medical resources were available in their later years.

Of the 41 men who have held the office, 5 are still alive (Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton), 4 were victims of homicide, all from gunfire (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy)*, and 32 died of natural causes (4 while in office: Harrison, Taylor, Harding, FD Roosevelt). These 32 are listed below by date of death. The "ordinal" figure is the order in which each served as president, Cleveland having served two non-consecutive terms.

NAME ORD-
INAL
YEAR
DIED
AGE CAUSE OF DEATH***
Washington, George 1 1799 67 peritonsillar abscess
Adams, John** 2 1826 90 heart failure, pneumonia
Jefferson, Thomas** 3 1826 83 old age, multiple diseases
Monroe, James 5 1831 73 heart failure, tuberculosis
Madison, James 4 1836 85 old age, multiple diseases
Harrison, William Henry 9 1841 68 pneumonia
Jackson, Andrew 7 1845 78 old age, multiple diseases
Adams, John Quincy 6 1848 80 stroke
Polk, James K. 11 1849 53 cholera
Taylor, Zachary 12 1850 65 food poisoning
Van Buren, Martin 8 1862 79 heart failure, pneumonia
Tyler, John 10 1862 71 "biliousness", bronchitis
Buchanan, James 15 1868 77 pneumonia, pericarditis
Pierce, Franklin 14 1869 64 cirrhosis
Fillmore, Millard 13 1874 74 stroke
Johnson, Andrew 17 1875 66 stroke
Grant, Ulysses 18 1885 63 throat cancer
Arthur, Chester A. 21 1886 56 chronic renal failure, stroke
Harrison, Benjamin 23 1901 67 pneumonia
Cleveland, Grover 22,24 1902 71 multiple diseases
Hayes, Rutherford B. 19 1903 70 heart attack
Roosevelt, Theodore 26 1919 61 heart attack
Harding, Warren G. 29 1923 57 heart attack
Wilson, Woodrow 28 1924 67 multiple diseases
Taft, William Howard 27 1930 60 cardiovascular disease
Coolidge, Calvin 30 1933 60 heart attack
Roosevelt, Franklin D. 32 1945 63 stroke
Hoover, Herbert 31 1964 90 internal bleeding
Eisenhower, Dwight 34 1969 78 congestive heart failure
Truman, Harry S 33 1972 88 old age, multisystem failure
Johnson, Lyndon B. 36 1973 64 heart attack
Nixon, Richard 37 1994 81 stroke

OBSERVATIONS

OPINION

The figures don't speak very loudly to modern medicine as a prolonger of life, at least for famous old white men, but I think we have to give medicine its due in certain individual cases. Washington died at 67 of quinsy, and I think just about everybody would agree that such deaths are very uncommon in modern times. Three other presidents clearly died before their time: Harrison of pneumonia, Taylor of a "typhoid-like fever," and Polk of cholera. Again, I think most people would agree that these untimely deaths would probably not have occurred in modern times (odd cases like Jim Henson's group B strep sepsis notwithstanding). Possibly ENT surgery could have saved Grant, as it apparently did Cleveland, and colorectal surgey saved Hoover and Reagan. The medicine of the fifties possibly kept Eisenhower's Crohn's disease sufficiently at bay, whereas a similarly afflicted counterpart of the nineteenth century may not have remained hale enough to rise to such high position, likewise for Kennedy and his Addison's disease.


*In addition, at least 3 presidents were survivors of gunshot wounds: Jackson, T Roosevelt, and Reagan (Jackson was shot in a duel prior to becoming president. The other two were victims of assassination attempts while in office [Reagan] or running for same [TR]).

**In one of the interesting coincidences of American history, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within a few hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. James Monroe died five years later, to the day.

***Causes of death of the early presidents are speculative and highly controversial. There was no microbiology to speak of until the last third of the 19th century, so such diagnostic categories as "tuberculosis" and "cholera" are rather suspect. The diagnosis of "biliousness" recurs in pre-modern medicine, and it is difficult to determine what modern diagnoses correlate with this. One could speculate that fatal biliousness could refer to any abdominal catastrophe that causes nausea, vomiting, and distention.