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The Price of Fame for Performers and Athletes: Shorter Lives

An analysis of obituaries suggests high-achieving individuals tend to live longer than average—except for performers and athletes.
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Do famous, successful people live longer lives? New research suggests the answer depends upon how they achieved their fame and success.

An analysis of 1,000 obituaries from The New York Times finds the average age of death for notable people varies depending upon their occupation. Athletes, performers, and creative types such as writers and artists died younger, on average, while people in business, politics, and the military hung on the longest.

“Fame and achievement in performance-related careers may be earned at the cost of a shorter life expectancy,” write Australian researchers C. R. Epstein of the University of Queensland and R. J. Epstein of the University of New South Wales. Their study is published in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.

Epstein and Epstein analyzed 1,000 consecutive obits published in the prestigious newspaper from 2009 through 2011, noting the person’s gender, occupation, and cause of death.

They found the youngest average age of death was among athletes (77.4 years), performers (77.1 years), and non-performers who worked in creative fields, such as authors, composers, and artists (78.5 years). The oldest average age of death was found among people famous for their work in politics (82.1 years), business (83.3 years), and the military (84.7 years).

One reason for this gap was immediately clear. Among performers and athletes, 7.2 percent died of lung cancer. That percentage “approximated the national average,” they write, but was far above the rate for famous people in other professions. In short, compared to equally successful people in other fields, performers are more likely to be smokers—and, perhaps, users of other unhealthful substances such as alcohol and drugs.

Overall, the subjects of Times obits were overwhelmingly male (813 vs. 186 females), and the mean age of death was higher for men. The average age of death for men was 80.35 years, far above the average life expectancy of an American male (75.6 years).

For women who received obituaries, the mean age of death was 78.8 years, which is below the U.S. average of 80.8 years. The researchers attribute this to the fact that females were “significantly overrepresented” in the categories of performer and athlete, and underrepresented in professions linked with longer lives, such as academics.

The researchers draw this conclusion from their results:

Our data raise the intriguing speculation that young people contemplating certain careers (e.g., performing arts and professional sports) may be faced, consciously or otherwise, with a Faustian choice: Namely (1) to maximize their career potential and competitiveness even though the required psychological and physical costs may be expected to shorten their longevity, or (2) to fall short of their career potential so as to balance their lives and permit a normal lifespan.

Burn brilliantly, or burn long: The choice is yours.