Hail to the Old Man
When the Founding Fathers decided that a person should be at least 35 years old to be President of the United States, the life expectancy for a white male child at birth was slightly less than 35 years. Did they intend that the Chief Executive be at death’s door before taking office?
No, 18th century expectations for a typical adult’s life span were not far from our own. Back then, if a man made it to his 50th birthday, he could expect to live another 21 years. But high infant and child mortality rates reduced the likelihood that a boy born in 1789 would live 57 years, which was George Wasthington’s age at the time of his inauguration.
It was not until Theodore Roosevelt – the youngest President ever – took office after McKinley’s death that the Commander in Chief’s age fell below the life expectancy for white males. At about this same time, the average life span was increasing sharply. At the turn of the century, expansions in medicine, like the sterilization of surgical equipment, kept adults alive longer. Years were added to the average life expectancy at the same strong rate until the 1950’s, when increases leveled off to more modest improvements.
Even today, infant mortality and early illnesses still leave their mark on the life expectancy rate. The life expectancy at birth in 2007 for a white male was just under 76 years, but if a white male reached the age of 75, he could expect to live approximately 10.5 more years.*
More POTUS Particulars
- The median age of US presidents upon taking office is 54 years and 11 months.
- The youngest president elected to office was John F. Kennedy (43 years, 236 days).
- The oldest president to assume office was Ronald Regan (69 years, 349 days).
- The oldest living former president is George H. W. Bush, born June 12, 1924 (86 years, 254 days)*Jimmy Carter is the 2nd oldest, born October 1, 1924 (86 years, 143 days) – only 111 days younger than Bush.
- The youngest living former president is Bill Clinton, born August 19, 1946 (64 years, 186 days).
- George W. Bush, born July 6. 1946, follows closely (64 years, 230 days) – only 44 days older.
- The longest-lived president was Gerald Ford who died at the age of 93 years, 165 days.
- Ronald Regan was the 2nd longest-lived, only 45 days short of Ford.
- The shortest-lived president was John F. Kennedy who was assassinated at the age of 46 years, 177 days.
- The president with the longest retirement was Herbert Hoover, who died 31 years, 238 days after leaving the presidency.
- → Jimmy Carter currently has the second-longest retirement, and will tie Hoover if he lives to September 7, 2012.
* For currently living presidents their longevity is calculated up to President’s Day, February 21st, 2011
Frank Freidel and Hugh S. Sidey, “The Presidents of the United States”. The White House.
Robert S. Summers. “POTUS: Presidents of the United States”. Internet Public Library.
This information, and the accompanying chart, has been adapted by the Bernhardt Fudyma Design Group from an article written by Richard L. Berke that was originally published in The New York Times on May 5th, 1996. The full article is available on
The New York Times archives.