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Why Do Presidents Always Go Grey? The Surprising Answer

For as long as photography has existed, people have noted how being the President of the United States appears to age a person. Compare a picture of just about any president at his inauguration with a picture taken at the end of the term, and you’ll notice a difference in how he looks.

For some, the change is dramatic, while for others, the aging process is more subtle. But grey hair is perhaps the defining trait that people notice in the age progression of US presidents. What’s behind this apparent presidential aging phenomenon? Are there unknown grey hair causes affecting those in the Oval Office?

Barack Obama in 2007

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012

Presidents Who Appeared to Age Most

Look at a photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken in 1860 and compare it with a photo taken in 1865, and you’ll see what almost appears to be two different people. Some of this may be attributable to the primitive photographic technology of the time, but there’s no denying that serving as president during the Civil War took its toll. Bill Clinton, who took office at age 46, looked quite a bit older in 2001 when he left office, with considerable grey hair. And as President Obama’s second term continues, many people have noted how much more grey hair he has in comparison to when he was first elected in 2008.

Presidents Who Appeared to Age Least

Even though Ronald Reagan served two terms, he appeared to age less than many other presidents, although photos from late in his presidency do show more grey hair. Harry Truman was another president that didn’t look considerably different when he left office than when he was sworn in. Neither Gerald Ford nor George H.W. Bush looked that different at the ends of their presidencies as they did at the beginning. Truman was 61 when he took office, Ford was 61, and the first President Bush was 65.

Harry Truman in 1945

Harry Truman in 1952

The “Reason” Presidents Appear to Age So Much

If you think about presidents who appeared to age significantly during their terms, you’ll find two important commonalities: they were usually younger when they took office, and they usually served multiple terms. Bill Clinton was only 46 when he took office, and Barack Obama was only 47. Abraham Lincoln was 52 when he took office, and that is not considered old today.

By contrast, the presidents who appeared to age least were generally older when they took office, and in some cases served shorter terms as president. Gerald Ford was already 61 when he became president, and only served for three years. Ronald Reagan was 70 when he became president, and even though he served two terms, he had already done most of his aging before becoming president.

So really, the “surprising” reason presidents appear to age so much while in office is because often they are sworn in and serve during the exact years when the effects of aging become most noticeable: the 40s and 50s. Look at a picture of any 55-year-old and compare it to a picture of the same person taken at age 45, and you’re likely to see just as big a difference. Most 70-year-olds have as much grey hair as they’re going to have, and unless health declines, they often look very similar a few years later.

The phenomenon of rapidly-aging presidents is mostly perception. In fact, S. Jay Olshansky, human longevity expert and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2011 showing that presidents who die of natural causes actually have longer average lifespans than the average male, at 79.8 years.

Olshansky sums it up this way: “What we do know is that if you take any 50-year-old man or 40-year-old man and you follow them for four years or eight years, chances are they’re going to be losing the hair that they have and in many instances a significant portion of it will turn gray.”

Considering normal greying often coincides with the ages politicians reach their peak professionally, maybe the next president should keep a steady supply of Get Away Grey in the White House medicine cabinet. This revolutionary grey hair treatment fights grey hair from the inside, by helping to replace an enzyme called catalase that breaks down the circulating hydrogen peroxide that bleaches hairs before they emerge from the scalp. Adults of all ages have discovered this amazing grey hair treatment, one that’s effective and far less trouble than repeatedly using harsh chemical dyes to fight grey.

All photos © Wikimedia Commons