Do you dream of being a rock star? Do you hope to live a long life?
If so, you’d better start prioritizing—or, at the very least, join a band. Because from Elvis Presley to Amy Winehouse, solo pop superstars are disproportionately likely to die young (although not necessarily at age 27).
That’s one finding of a study just published in the British journal BMJ Open, which takes a close look at mortality among rock and pop icons of the past half-century. And just like the rest of us, it finds, famous musicians are more likely to die from substance abuse if they had troubled childhoods.
A team of researchers led by Mark Bellis, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, looked at the mortality rates and childhood experiences of 1,489 rock and pop stars who gained fame between 1956 and 2006. Comparisons were made across the decades, and between European and American musicians.
Confirming earlier studies, the researchers report famous musicians are more likely than their fans to prematurely enter rock and roll heaven. Specifically, they found the gap in life expectancy between pop stars and the public widened consistently until 25 years after the musicians first became famous.
After that, for reasons that aren’t clear, mortality rates for European stars gradually revert back to those of the general population, while the gap remains wide for American stars. (Are reunion tours bad for your health?)
The researchers found solo performers were about twice as likely to die earlier than expected (that is, earlier than the average for their demographic category) as members of a band. Among North American solo stars, nearly 23 percent died before their time, compared to just over 10 percent of band members. Among Europeans, the figures were 9.8 percent for solo stars and 5.4 percent for members of a band.
This could reflect that solo stars tend to be more famous than band members and thus face a different set of pressures and temptations. Or, the researchers speculate, the support of fellow musicians could be a “protective factor” against certain self-destructive behaviors.
That said, the study strongly suggests those behaviors are rooted in experiences that occurred far before a musician achieved fame—or perhaps even before they picked up an instrument.
Using biographical sources, Bellis and his colleagues determined whether each star had suffered one of more “adverse childhood experiences,” including physical abuse, sexual abuse, or living with a mentally ill, suicidal or chronically ill person. They then matched these results with the cause of death of the 132 rock and pop stars who died over this 50-year period.
They found over 47 percent of those who died from chemical misadventure or other “risk-related causes” such as suicide or violence had suffered some form of childhood adversity. The figure was only 25 percent for those who died of other causes.
“Consideration of childhood experiences brings into question whether even limitless resources in adulthood can undo the impact of adverse childhoods,” the researchers note. Money and fame can give people easy access to the high-risk lifestyle that childhood traumas predisposed them to gravitate towards. That can literally be a lethal combination.
This finding is particularly disturbing given how many young people think of these musicians as role models, and/or dream of being pop stars. Amateur talent shows such The X Factor, which has its season finale this week, consistently receive some of the highest ratings on television.
“A better understanding of the underlying causes of risk-taking in performers may help deglamorize such behavior,” the researchers conclude, “and reduce its appeal to fans and would-be rock and pop stars.”
Indeed, it would mark a major cultural shift if the heavy-partying lifestyle of pop stars was seen not as an enviable perk of fame, but rather as a sign that these talented but troubled people are, in many cases, destructively coping with some deep childhood wounds.