STUMP » Articles » Presidential Mortality: Bernie Running and Link to Retirement Planning » 25 February 2019, 08:30

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Presidential Mortality: Bernie Running and Link to Retirement Planning  


25 February 2019, 08:30

With Bernie Sanders officially in the Democratic 2020 Presidential Candidate race (currently 77 years old), people are talking once again about “too old”.

I’ve investigated this a few times for prior races:

For that first one, McCain was then 72 years old, and I had forgotten there had been something about his cancer in 2008 — he had 4 bouts of melanoma, evidently (yikes). He did ultimately die of cancer… but not melanoma. He died of brain cancer in 2018, at the age of 81.

Anyway, there’s a lot of people who have declared they’re running for the Democratic nomination for President, and mortality really doesn’t figure much for all of them. Let’s just focus on those over age 70. Also, let’s consider Potential candidates.

Frankly, I don’t consider someone like Jerry Brown (80 years old) to be at all likely to run. John Kerry (75 years old)… yeah, I don’t think so, either.

But Joe Biden? Hillary Clinton? Maybe.


I’m going to give my own spreadsheets a miss, because I want to link to this Longevity Illustrator, which is useful in educating people about how long a period one might need to plan for in retirement.

Life expectancy can be a start, but there can be a long longevity tail, depending on the age at which you retire, whether you need to cover the last-to-die in a couple, and so forth.

That’s why I made my spreadsheet in the first place – to educate about how long retirement really could be – but having this web tool is easier for anybody to play with.


So let’s start with Bernie. His birthday is September 8, 1941 (note that he’s older than boomers).

I put in the birthdate, and it looks like he really doesn’t smoke anything. Let’s start out assuming he has average health condition for his age, and just start projecting from his current age – 77.


Age Survival Probability
80 89%
85 66%
90 40%
95 17%
100 5%

And let’s look at specific percentiles:

Percentiles Number of Years
90% 2
75% 6
50% 11
25% 16
10% 20

So he has a 75% chance of lasting 6 more years under these assumptions… which would get him through one term in office.

He has a 50/50 chance of going 11 years – so that would get him through two terms plus some change.

I don’t think there’s any reason to look at worse health – let’s try to Excellent health option.

Percentiles Number of Years
90% 3
75% 7
50% 12
25% 17
10% 21

So yes, Bernie is old. But he’s not Ruth Bader Ginsberg old. Two terms would be a stretch… if it were only him running for office.


With the inevitable “ageist!” yelling.

I have no dog in this fight, not being a socialist or Democrat or whatever.

Yes, Sanders is old. Two terms would likely be stretching it in terms of good mortality stats. People really do start deteriorating in the mid-80s, in general.

I think many people supported Bernie in the primary because he was the last not-Hillary candidate standing, and there are plenty of other, younger candidates who are similar to him. I’m not counting him out, though.


So, I’m doing an exercise that, again, is really useful for retirement planning.

Most people think life expectancy, but if you’re doing retirement planning for a couple, you need to realize that the distribution of last-to-survive is really important, and it’s not as simple as projecting each one independently.

Elizabeth Warren was born June 22, 1949, firmly in boomer territory, and as a female non-smoker, she really doesn’t have more mortality-wise to worry about for a few decades.

But let’s assume a Bernie-Warren ticket.

Okay, I put in both their info, both non-smokers, and let’s start with average health.

Probability Bernie Warren Either
90% 2 6 10
75% 6 12 15
50% 11 19 20
25% 16 25 25
10% 20 29 29

If it’s a Bernie-Warren ticket, chances are very high that at least one of the two could make it to 10 years from now (end of a 2nd term for whoever). Only a 10% chance that they’d both be dead.


Finally, Biden hasn’t declared, but let’s go with the most extreme situation: a two old men ticket. Biden is also pre-boomer, being born in 1942.

Let’s put them both in and see what happens (again, just assuming average health and non-smoker).

Probability Bernie Biden Either
90% 2 2 7
75% 6 6 11
50% 11 11 15
25% 16 16 19
10% 20 21 23

So we have about a 25% chance that neither of them would make it through two terms.


So here’s the deal: the mortality tables used above are for the general population. These people I’m calculating for above are rather wealthy (and have been for some time), have access to the best medical care in the world (and have had for a long time), and we would expect them to have better-than-average mortality results as a result.

That said, some argue that the presidency is such a high pressure job, it ages people rapidly.

I’m not sure that’s the case, in terms of mortality effects.

The problem is, we really don’t have much in the way of credible data.

I could try a Bayesian analysis, using all the presidents, including the ones who were assassinated, and look at age of death compared to what the mortality distribution was like at the time they died. I’d have to condition it on them having lived long enough to get elected president in the first place (or, in the case of those like Teddy Roosevelt, lived long enough to step in after an assassination).

I’d be testing the A/E (that is actual to expected) ratio — is their mortality higher or lower?

And then we have the still-living presidents (as I write this, Jimmy Carter is still alive at 94) that I would need to include.

I’m going to tell you right now, that’s not enough data points to move the dial, unless the mortality was way off. You’d have something like that with JFK, for instance, who was only 46 when he died… via assassination. But most of the other guys are dying at ages pretty normal for their time (even with the assassinations). Indeed, in many cases, one might say they were peculiarly long-lived.

But I will leave it to you. Here are a few pieces I found:

American Council of Science and Health: Would Presidents Die Today As They Did Then?

New Statesman: The most dangerous job in America? US presidents have a fatality rate roughly 27 times that of lumberjacks..(note: the author does explain what’s wrong with the reasoning by the end of the article)

The BMJ:Do heads of government age more quickly? Observational study comparing mortality between elected leaders and runners-up in national elections of 17 countries

So have fun!

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