Human Nature

Obama’s Gray Hair

Are the burdens of the presidency graying Barack Obama? Are his gray hairs a sign of life-shortening stress?

Today’s New York Times front page makes it sound that way:

For a guy who prides himself on projecting a stress-free demeanor, the changes above his temples are speckled evidence that perhaps the psychological and physical strains of the job—never mind the long process of winning it—are in fact taking something of a toll. (Experts say stress can contribute to whitening locks.) …

But with the economy struggling, two wars raging and countless other pressures facing him, the president is very likely to see additional signs of wear and tear in the mirror each morning. “Presidents age two years for every year that they’re in office,” said Dr. Michael F. Roizen, co-founder of RealAge, a Web site that tells you how much older your body really is because of all that smoking and drinking you have been doing. … Rapidly lightening locks are just one sign that the job is getting to America’s presidents.

The front page of today’s Washington Post Style section agrees:

Are times so stressful—a plummeting economy and two wars—that our young president is going grayer a mere six weeks into the job? … With each debate, after every primary fight, it seems Barack Obama’s tightly clipped hair became just a dash saltier. … And it’s an article of faith, backed by photographic evidence, that the Oval Office ages the men in it. Look no further than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

It’s natural to look at the president’s gray hair and take it as a sign of job stress. But guess what’s even more natural? Gray hair. The Times ’ headline—”For Young President, Flecks of Gray”—implies that Obama is graying prematurely. Not true. According to a scholarly review published three years ago in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology , “Age of onset of graying also appears to be hereditary, developing usually in late fourth decade. Thus, the average age for Whites is mid-30s, for Orientals late-30s, and for Africans mid-40s, such that by 50 years of age, 50% of people have 50% gray hair.”

Obama is 47 . As the Times and Post photographs show, he’s only marginally gray. He’s right on schedule.

Is his gray hair a sign of premature aging, “wear and tear” and “taking a toll,” as the newspaper stories imply? Sorry. Evidence published in Medical Hypotheses suggests otherwise:

An office and autopsy study was performed to see if early graying was associated with increased morbidity, earlier age at death, and specific cause of death. 195 consecutive office patients over the age of 40 were studied to see if premature graying of scalp hair (50% or more gray before age 50) was associated with increased incidence of disease before age 50 …For fathers, mean age at death if prematurely gray was 68.27 years; if not prematurely gray, 66.03 years … For mothers, the values were 70.55 years and 70.37 years respectively … 874 autopsy patients dying over a 23-year period (1966-1989) were studied to see if the median age at death (of patients 50% or more gray) differed for any of the six categories of disease (myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, cancer, stroke, pneumonia/bronchitis, or cirrhosis of the liver/GI problems) when compared to the entire autopsy sample of 19 categories of disease … This dual office and autopsy study provides no evidence to support the contention that early gray hair is a risk factor.

The study, published in 1991, is getting a bit old. But then, aren’t we all? Bill Clinton was 46 when he became president. George W. Bush was 53 . That’s perfectly consistent with the 50-50-50 rule (50 percent of people being 50 percent gray by age 50). There’s nothing premature about their grayness—or Obama’s. Being president may be bad for your health. But your gray hair tells us nothing.