Is Being a Senator Good for Your Health?

Posted March 30, 2004 at 6:43pm

Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) campaign released a stack of medical records this week showing the 60-year-old presidential hopeful is physically fit to be commander in chief — a finding that wouldn’t surprise New York doctor and researcher Gabe Feldman.

Last year, Feldman published research showing that Senators tend to live just as long — if not, longer — than their typical male counterparts in the general population.

“US Senators born in the 20th century had a mean life expectancy that was statistically similar to that of US males generally and the study group had similar causes of death,” Feldman concluded in an article on his findings that was published last May in the American Journal of Public Health.

Feldman’s study tracked the deaths of all those elected to the Senate who were born after 1899 and died on or before Dec. 31, 1999, and found that the average age of their demise was 72.7 years.

On average, the typical white, American male who had already reached at least 40 years of age has a life expectancy of 69.3.

Feldman’s then-employer, the American Cancer Society, funded the research, which grew out of Feldman’s personal interest in the Senate.

“I have a very strong interest in politics and public policy. I think everybody involved in public health does,” explained Feldman, an epidemiologist and politics buff who currently works for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The only prior study on the subject, conducted in 1969, concluded that Senators tend to expire about six years before other typical white males, but Feldman began to doubt that those conclusions were still valid.

Feldman’s common sense told him that the average Senator had “fewer risk factors than the average person” — and given the fact that folks like the now-late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had outlasted many of their predecessors, he felt it was “reasonable to revisit the issue of Senators’ longevity.”

Feldman was not alone in his thinking.

In a 2002 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) conceded that the Senate may be a stressful environment, but overall he believes his colleagues, for the most part, tend to be fitter than the average Joe.

“I think the tension level and stress level fluctuates here probably more rapidly than it does in many other professions,” Frist told the Times. “As a whole, though, I would say the senators are a healthier profile of our population than another 100 matched by age and gender. You don’t see as much obesity as in the general population.”

Feldman’s research also yielded a list of the most common causes of death in Senators — causes that statistically mirrored the explanations of death in other Americans.

Feldman’s study showed that coronary artery disease was the leading cause of death among Senators and accounted for 33 percent of the mortalities — a fact to which Kerry might want to pay close attention.

According to the medical records released by his campaign this week, the Massachusetts Democrat has elevated levels of C-reactive protein in his blood. C-reactive protein is regarded as a marker for heart disease.

Other Senators who have recently battled heart conditions include Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

A year ago February, McConnell had triple bypass surgery after a stress test revealed trouble and subsequent testing showed significant arterial blockages, and in January 2003, Graham underwent open heart surgery to replace a valve in his aorta.

The other top causes of death in 20th-century Senators were cancer (25 percent), stroke (10 percent), pneumonia (8 percent), Alzheimer’s disease (4 percent) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (4 percent). Of the 23 deaths from cancer Feldman catalogued in his study, the most common were lung (24 percent), gastrointestinal (17 percent), hematological (17 percent) and genitourinary (13 percent).

Feldman worked closely with Senate Historian Richard Baker on this project, going through Baker’s files here in Washington, but getting the necessary information was by no means a cake walk.

Simply getting a basic explanation of death for some Senators was a challenge, Feldman explained, because news stories and obituaries often omitted specifics. At a certain time in the nation’s past, the very word “cancer” was almost taboo.

“It did appear that there were certain diseases, conditions, less likely to be brought to the surface — mental health issues and cancer. Cancer was put aside,” Feldman said, explaining that in such cases “heart disease was usually [listed as] the default diagnosis.”

“When I was growing up, it was considered to be a very frightening word, that if you said it, it would become real,” Feldman said, but that has changed dramatically as cancer has become a more survivable disease.

That said, a lack of public information made it difficult to pinpoint other more specific factors related to cause of death in most 20th-century Senators, Feldman added.

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to elucidate any connection between lifestyle and means of death, because we didn’t have enough information about whether the Senator was obese, whether the Senator smoked, or whether the Senator drank,” Feldman explained.

Aside from Kerry’s high levels of C-reactive protein, which is produced and released by the liver in response to inflammatory processes in the body, the Democratic presidential hopeful got a clean bill of health from his personal physician. The Senator, who was surgically treated for prostate cancer last year, remains cancer free and will be sidelined only temporarily following surgery today in Boston to repair a torn tendon in his shoulder.

Beyond statistics, Feldman said he believes there is a certain benefit to knowing more about candidates’ personal health.

“The most important factor there with candidates is that we are able to now find out that somebody had a colonoscopy, or someone had a biopsy of their prostate, or somebody is on medication,” Feldman remarked. “I think it’s of interest to the public from our public health perspective, that our leading candidates do not smoke, that they’ve had a colonoscopy, that they keep their blood pressure under control.”