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Stressed CEOs age faster and die sooner — US National Bureau of Economic Research

Stress induced from working long hours and making high-stakes decisions translates to a shorter life and faster aging for CEOs, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

In the March study, researchers focused on wealthy CEOs of large publicly traded companies that were largely isolated from health effects related to finances. Study authors analysed the birth and death dates of 1,605 CEOs of the large firms, and used machine-learning tools to assess visible aging using a sample of 3,086 photos of the 2006 Fortune 500 CEOs over the course of their tenure.

When CEOs were under significant stress, like during an economic downturn, it shaved 18 months off their lifespan, the researchers found. Conversely, their lifespan increased by two years when they were insulated from market pressures.

Analysis of pictures showed that exposure to a significant event like the Great Recession increased CEOs' visible age by a year over the next decade, according to the research.

"Stricter corporate governance regimes – which are generally viewed as desirable and welfare-improving – and financial distress impose significant personal health costs to CEOs," the researchers concluded. "While we lack direct physical or medical measures of heightened stress, the evidence implies that stricter governance and economic downturns constitutes a substantial personal cost for CEOs in terms of their health and life expectancy."


Study details
CEO Stress, Aging, and Death

Mark Borgschulte, Marius Guenzel, Canyao Liu, and Ulrike Malmendier

Published in March 2021

We estimate the long-term effects of experiencing high levels of job demands on the mortality and aging of CEOs. The estimation exploits variation in takeover protection and industry crises. First, using hand-collected data on the dates of birth and death for 1,605 CEOs of large, publicly-listed US firms, we estimate the resulting changes in mortality. The hazard estimates indicate that CEOs’ lifespan increases by two years when insulated from market discipline via antitakeover laws, and decreases by 1.5 years in response to an industry-wide downturn. Second, we apply neural-network based machine-learning techniques to assess visible signs of aging in pictures of CEOs. We estimate that exposure to a distress shock during the Great Recession increases CEOs’ apparent age by one year over the next decade. Our findings imply significant health costs of managerial stress, also relative to known health risks.


Beckers’ Hospital Review report

NBER working paper

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