by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
Over the last half-century, history has seen a number of First Ladies reach an advanced age beyond even the trend reflected in national statistics on longevity and gender.
Earlier this month, on July 5, Nancy Reagan celebrated her 92nd birthday. By any measure, this is a remarkable benchmark but particularly when one considers some of what the former First Lady endured.
Many people may recall that she is a breast cancer survivor. Fewer perhaps were aware of a more subtle strain on her. As she has also candidly admitted, the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt on her late husband Ronald Reagan also took both an emotional and physical toll on her.
That event came only two months and ten days after he first became President of the United States and for the entire following eight years (short those two months and ten days) she endured a high degree of anxiety every time the President appeared at a publicly accessible evert, fearing his was vulnerable to such an attack again. As she recalled and as is evidenced in pictures during her tenure as First Lady, the stress on her system resulted in a great weight loss.
While the conclusion of his two terms in 1989 marked the end of this period, the former President and First Lady had less than six years to enjoy each other’s company without public duties on their daily schedule, for in 1994 Reagan disclosed that he had Alzheimer’s Disease.
For the next decade, Nancy Reagan chose not to divest her commitment to him. Mrs. Reagan assumed the role of his primary caretaker, managing all aspects of it in their home, and permitting her own full public life to become limited in scope as his condition advanced.
Although she had the opportunity to place the management of his daily care in the hands of expert medical care professionals which his status as a former President afforded him and which she always acknowledged to be a great privilege, the former First Lady was vigilant in assuming her responsibilities until his June 5, 2004 death.
For a person of any age, maintaining that degree of commitment for a full ten years would be difficult, making the fact that just four weeks later Nancy Reagan turned 82 years old all the more remarkable.
At that point it would have been entirely reasonable if she had chosen to then live an entirely private life, especially with the deep grief she suffered after her loss. All the more startling has been her return to public life in her nine years as a presidential widow.
Refusing to permit an unsteady mobility limit her and showing no vanity in her reliance on a cane or wheelchair when necessary, Nancy Reagan continues to shepherd fundraising efforts at the Reagan Presidential Library and attend events there.
She returned to visit the White House in 2009 to meet with President Obama and witness his signing of federal recognition of Reagan’s 2011 centennial, and with Mrs. Obama for a private lunch.
Although it conflicted with the majority view of leaders from her late husband’s political party, she took a strong stand in favor of stem cell research and then marriage equality. She has also become a symbol of her late husband’s legacy, and welcomed the 2008 and 2012 presidential nominee’s of his party.
Another factor overlooked about Mrs. Reagan’s longevity may be her family proclivity.
In fact, it is Nancy Reagan’s mother, Edith Luckett Robins Davis who holds the record for being the longest-living parents of a First Lady.
Born on July 16, 1888, and dying on October 27, 1987, Mrs. Davis reached the remarkable age of 99 years old.
From a young age, the Washington-born “Edie” Luckett had worked as a stage actress. Even after her first marriage to Kenneth Robbins and the birth of her only child Anne Frances “Nancy,” she pursued her professional career. Following her 1929 marriage to Dr. Loyal Davis, Mrs. Reagan’s mother continued to work in the entertainment industry, as a radio actress.
She lived her retirement years in Arizona, having seen her daughter become First Lady.
Since her death in 1982, the longevity of Bess Truman has continued to be the record length of life among any First Lady – or President.
(The five Presidents with the greatest longevity are: Gerald Ford, who lived to 93 years old and 165 days, Ronald Reagan who lived to 93 years old and 120 days, John Adams who lived to 90 years old and 247 days, Herbert Hoover who lived to 90 years old and 71 days, and George Bush who turned 89 years old on June 12, 2013.)
Mrs. Truman had reached the astounding age of 97 years old but she had held the status of greatest longevity among First Ladies beginning in 1975, when she turned 90 years old.
This benchmark was longer than the one previously held by Edith Wilson who died in December of 1961 at 89 years old.
In March of 1977, a month after Mrs. Truman had attained the age of 91 years old, a life insurance industry study determined that First Ladies lived an average of ten percent longer than their comparable demographic in the general U.S. population at the time.
As a senior citizen, Bess Truman also held another unique status.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made her the first American woman recipient of Medicare coverage.
He and Lady Bird Johnson even came to the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri to sign the new legislation which enacted the measure, so former President Harry Truman and former First Lady Bess Truman could participate in the ceremony – and receive the first cards ensuring their coverage by the new measure.
In light of the fact that the average life expectancy for American women is 81 years old, it certainly seems that a four year lease at the White House adds to a lease on life for the women who’ve joined their husbands in living there.
In surveying the entire history of the American presidency, once finds that previous to 1975, the five longest-living First Ladies had been:
1) Edith Wilson, mentioned above.
2) Anna Harrison who died at 88 years old in 1864.
3) Sarah Polk who died at 87 years old in 1891.
4) Edith Roosevelt who died at 87 years old in 1948.
5) Lucretia Garfield who died at 85 years in 1918.
As the 21st century began, however, that record quickly shifted.
Although Mrs. Truman remains the longest-living at 97 years old, she is now followed by Lady Bird Johnson who reach the age of 94 years old at the time of her July 11 2007 death, Betty Ford who died at age 93 years old on July 8, 2011, and Mrs. Reagan who, currently at age 92 years old, may well surpass their longevity records.
At 89 years old, Edith Wilson was the longest-living until that status became Mrs. Truman’s in 1975, and has since receded to become only the fifth-longest living First Lady.
The longevity of other women who served as First Ladies between Mrs. Truman and Mrs. Ford are Mamie Eisenhower who died several days before reaching her 83rd birthday in 1979, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who died two months before her 65th birthday in 1994 and Pat Nixon who had turned 81 years old three months before her death in 1993.
Among the living First Ladies besides Mrs. Reagan are Rosalynn Carter, who will celebrate her 86th birthday on August 18, Barbara Bush who turned 88 this past June 8, Hillary Clinton who will be 66 years old on October 26, Laura Bush who will be 67 years old on November 4, and Michelle Obama who will turn 50 years old on January 17, 2014.
By reaching 75 days beyond her 89th birthday next June 8, Barbara Bush’s longevity would then replace Edith Wilson’s record to become the fifth longest-living First Lady, meaning that four of the five with such status will have been incumbent First Ladies within just the last 40 years of the 225 year institution of the American Presidency.
What accounts for First Ladies having such a longer life expectancy than average?
Obviously, a primary factor has been their access to excellent health care; during their tenures as incumbent First Ladies, medical care from the nation’s leading military physicians it is a perquisite provided them as presidential family members. Living healthily is certainly another factor.
Here is a curious fact, coincidence or not.
Among the five longest-living First Ladies, Bess Truman, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan are all breast-cancer survivors.
While it is entirely supposition, perhaps their surviving such a health crisis made them more conscientious about their own well-being.
Perhaps one other factor has played a role in the case of two of the longest-living First Ladies.
According to the July 10, 2013 report on worldwide longevity conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the one place on the planet where women lived the longest is Marin County in the state of California.
Betty Ford was a Californian for the last 34 years of her life and, except for her eight years as First Lady in Washington, D.C., Nancy Reagan has lived in the Golden State for almost 70 years.