McCain, Obama, and the odds of surviving two terms as President

After all the recent blogging about John McCain’s health and whether his melanoma will recur or his left ptosis is anything other than from benign causes, probably relating to aging, you just know I couldn’t pass this story up:

WASHINGTON (AP) — If John McCain is elected and goes on to win a second term, there’s as much as a one-in-four chance America could see its first woman president — Sarah Palin.

It’s actuarial math.

The odds highly favor either McCain or Barack Obama completing a first term in good health. After that, McCain’s odds still are still fairly solid, but his chances of dying or being in poor health go up faster than Obama’s, mainly because of his age.

The personalized actuarial study shows:

An Atlanta actuarial company specializing in individualized estimates of life and health expectancy has run the numbers for McCain, 72, and Obama, 47. The firm, Bragg Associates, calculated the odds of the candidates dying in office, adjusted for their known health problems.

McCain would be the oldest president to begin a first term in office. By the end of a second term, Jan. 20, 2017, he would have a 24.44 percent chance of dying, compared with 5.76 percent for Obama, the firm estimates.

The “health expectancy” (i.e., the number of years left of good health that can be expected) was also calculated for both candidates:

The firm estimates that McCain has a health expectancy of 8.4 years, while Obama can expect another 21.9 years of good health. The calculations are from January, 2009, covering two terms in office for either candidate. McCain, if he’s like others in his age group, would have a cushion of just about five months.

I found these estimates a bit odd in one aspect: Barack Obama is only 47. Why would he be expected to have only another 22 years of good health? The reason: He’s a smoker. True, he said he was quitting in February, but even if he quit cold turkey, for purposes of actuarial estimates he’s not considered a nonsmoker until a year after his last cigarette. Moreover, risk of lung cancer, although it starts to fall immediately after one quits smoking, never quite falls back to baseline (i.e., to what it would have been if the person had never smoked).

Another thing I have to wonder about. John McCain’s mother is 95 years old. I have to wonder if the actuarial firm took family history into account, as clearly there’s some longevity in there, which makes me also wonder if the firm may have overestimated McCain’s chances of dying and underestimated his health expectancy. Still, these are the cold, hard numbers, and reality is that, although McCain has an excellent chance of surviving four more years, like any person in his 70s his chances of dying climb rapidly after that. It’s just biology. Of course, as was pointed out in the article, these estimates of the odds of dying are averages, and a 24% chance of dying within 8 years means a 76% chance of surviving. With Sarah Palin as the Vice President, though, these numbers are a lot scarier than they would be otherwise. After all, when similar speculation was being made about Ronald Reagan 28 years ago, George Bush, Sr. was the Vice Presidential running-mate, and a lot of people thought he was more qualified than the top of the ticket.