Is the Price of Fame a Shorter Life?

Study suggests star performers, athletes may die younger, but connection isn't proven

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THURSDAY, April 18, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Aspiring young stars should know that fame might shorten the lives of performers, artists and athletes, researchers say.

However, this is not the case for people who are well known in other fields such as business, politics and research.

The study authors analyzed 1,000 consecutive obituaries published in The New York Times from 2009 to 2011. This was based on the premise that people who have an obituary in the newspaper were highly successful in their careers.

Obituaries were divided into four broad job categories. "Performance/sport" included actors, singers, musicians, dancers and athletes, while "nonperforming creative" included writers, composers and visual artists. The other categories were "business/military/political" and "professional/academic/religious."

Younger ages of death were noted in about 77 percent of performers/athletes and about 79 percent of creative people, while older ages of death were seen in about 82 percent of professionals and academics, and 83 percent of those with business, military or political careers.

Deaths at a younger age were associated with accidents, infections (including HIV/AIDS) and certain cancers, the investigators found. In general, cancer-related deaths were more frequent in performers (27 percent) and creative people (29 percent) and somewhat less common in people with professional/academic (24 percent), military/political (20 percent) and sports careers (18 percent).

Lung cancer deaths -- which the researchers said was a likely indication of long-term smoking -- were highest among performers (7.2 percent) and least common among professionals/academics (1.4 percent), according to the study published online April 17 in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.

The life expectancy for an American citizen born today is about 76 years for males and 81 years for females. The average age of death in the obituaries was about 80 for males and 79 for females. Among the people in the obituaries, women were more likely than men to have been performers or athletes (38 percent versus 18 percent) and less likely to have had professional careers (12 percent versus 27 percent), the researchers noted.

"A one-off retrospective analysis like this can't prove anything, but it raises some interesting questions," study author Richard Epstein, a professor and director of the Clinical Informatics & Research Center at the Kinghorn Cancer Center of St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, Australia, said in a journal news release.

"First, if it is true that successful performers and sports players tend to enjoy shorter lives, does this imply that fame at younger ages predisposes to poor health behaviors in later life after success has faded? Or that psychological and family pressures favoring unusually high public achievement lead to self-destructive tendencies throughout life? Or that risk-taking personality traits maximize one's chances of success, with the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illicit drugs improving one's performance output in the short term? Any of these hypotheses could be viewed as a health warning to young people aspiring to become stars," Epstein suggested.

Although the study found an association between success in certain careers and life span, it didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers tips for good health.

SOURCE: QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, news release, April 17, 2013

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