"Every time Obama comes on television now, the collective blood pressure in the United States goes down 10 points."
That quote, attributed to Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, appeared today in a Washington Post article on Obama's calm manner and how the president-elect's disposition reflects his upbringing in laid-back Hawaii. It suggests that Obama's cool is contagious is a positive way, that it reassures Americans rattled by the nation's state of crisis.
Rep. Abercrombie may have been speaking figuratively, but imagine for a moment the possibility that Obama's speeches actually do lower listeners' blood pressure. Since high blood pressure contributes to heart attacks and strokes, is it possible that Obama's status as president-elect has prevented some cardiovascular attacks?
That may sound implausible, but I don't think it is. Rigorous studies show that changes in the environment around people—for example, reduced smoking in public places—can rapidly and significantly lower heart attack rates. In fact, a study published today in the health journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reports that hospitalizations for heart attack in Pueblo, Colo., fell 27 percent in the year and a half after a smoking ban went into effect there—and subsequently fell again, for a 41 percent decrease over three years.
A change in the identity of the nation's commander-in-chief isn't the same thing as a law that results in cleaner air, but if it lowers people's blood pressure, it could have a similar effect. And if Obama's soothing presence (soothing to some voters, at any rate) on the national stage has led to a drop off in heart attacks, researchers should be able to confirm it the same way the authors of today's smoking study did—by comparing heart attack rates before and after Obama was elected.
An enterprising researcher could also contrast any shift in the heart attack rate in pro-Obama cities or states to any shift in areas that voted against the Democrat. If heart attacks have decreased in blue states since early November and have increased in red states, that would be an intriguing clue. (In parts of the country, heart attack rates naturally fluctuate from month to month, so researchers would have to take that into account, too.)
I'd also be interested in knowing whether the blood pressure of voters tends to change when they hear Obama speak—and whether there's any difference in the biological response his supporters and nonsupporters have.
I'll see if I can reach an epidemiologist who's qualified to comment on this subject.