One secret to a longer life: Don’t become CEO in an embattled industry

A study finds that chief executives who face unusual stress have reduced life expectancies (and appear to look older, as well)

For many CEOs, stress is a routine part of their job. But what happens when they face extraordinary pressures like damaging economic shocks or the possibility of a hostile takeover?

New research suggests they are likely to pay a heavy price for enduring those stresses: reduced life expectancy.

The researchers, whose findings were published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, first examined the effect of state laws designed to protect against hostile takeovers. They compared the lifespans of roughly 1,600 executives who served as CEOs between 1970 and 1991, and found that CEOs who weren’t insulated by state law from hostile takeovers during their tenures lived an average of two years less than those who had this buffer.

Brian Chesky, chief executive officer and co-founder of Airbnb Inc. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)


Next, the researchers compared the lifespans of CEOs whose industries suffered from significant downturns in stock prices during economic shocks—a decline in equity value of 30% or more over two years for the median firm in the industry—to those in industries that fared better during those times. Here too, CEOs who faced greater stress tended to live about two years less than their counterparts, researchers found.

Lastly, the researchers used machine-learning software designed to estimate how old people look to study the apparent ages of CEOs before the 2007-09 recession and up to 10 years later. Their sample consisted of more than 3,000 photos of more than 450 CEOs. This analysis showed that CEOs whose industries experienced steep declines in share prices because of the recession appeared to age about a year more on average over the 10 years than executives in industries where share prices held up better.

To be sure, artificial intelligence has certain limitations when it comes to accurately estimating apparent age, but the researchers tried to minimize potential issues by accounting for aspects such as image context and facial positioning that can affect AI software’s analysis of photos, says Marius Guenzel, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a co-author of the study.

While every person handles stress differently, there are unique stresses to being at an organization’s helm, says David G. Fubini, a senior lecturer on organizational behavior and co-leader of the Leading Professional Services Firm and Mergers and Acquisitions Programs for Harvard Business School’s executive education.


CEOs are always in the limelight, for example, and many go into the job not understanding the extent of its demands, Mr. Fubini says. They are expected to make hard decisions quickly and thoughtfully, often bearing the brunt of responsibility for their choices. "It’s a tsunami of responsibilities," he says.

Of course, it’s not only CEOs who have high-stress jobs. Dr. Guenzel says he’d like to see more research done on other stressful roles, such as air-traffic controllers, fulfillment workers and food-delivery workers, to see if there’s a correlation between health and stress in those occupations. He’d also like to see studies of how stress might affect areas beyond health, such as marriage, parenting or drug use.