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Death and the Academy Award Winner

Oscar winners may live longer lives than their peers. Or perhaps shorter ones.
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Do Oscar winners live longer than their peers? The answer is as murky as bad cinematography. As Dr. Donald Redelmeier noted in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001, social status is a “consistent, powerful and widespread determinant of death rates.”

So, at least in theory, the status conferred by the golden statuette could contribute to a recipient’s longevity. Redelmeier and Sheldon Singh compared the mortality rates of the 762 actors and actresses who had received nominations up to that point, and compared them with another cast member of the same gender who was in the same film and “born in the same era.”

They found life expectancy was 3.9 years longer for Academy Award winners than for their less-recognized counterparts.

In 2005, the same journal published a rebuttal by four researchers, who criticized the original authors’ statistical methodology. They contended, reasonably enough, that if we’re asking whether an Oscar increases one’s status and lengthens one’s life, one should compare the number of years he or she lives after winning the award at (say) age 50 to the number of years an Oscarless colleague lives after age 50.

Nothing stirs debates over movies like the Academy Awards. For more on the studies of Oscar, check out these stories on
Does an Academy Award Really Denote Quality?
Predicting Oscars for Bigelow, Bridges, Bullock
Oscar Winners Should Thank Their Economist

Recalculating the numbers in that way, the scholars, led by Marie-Pierre Sylvestre, determined that the Oscar winners’ survival advantage “was closer to one year, and was not statistically significant.”

If there is a longevity advantage for actors, it apparently doesn’t extend to screenwriters. Redelmeier and Singh crunched the numbers for all 850 scribes nominated for an Oscar through the year 2000. Writing in the British Medical Journal, they determined that the life expectancy of Academy Award winners was 3.6 years shorter than for nominees.

“This paradox is not easily explained,” they conceded. “It might reflect the unusual lifestyles of writers, where success is not linked to exemplary conduct or control.”

As it is for, umm, actors?

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