An analysis of obituaries in the New York Times suggests that the cost of achieving fame as a performer or in sport may be a shorter life. The Australian-based researchers, who analyzed one thousand obituaries, write about their findings in a paper published online in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine this week.

Numerous studies show that job-related factors are linked to lifespan.

In this new study, researchers Richard Epstein from St Vincent’s Hospital, Clinical School, at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and Catherine Epstein from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, wanted to examine the extent to which being famous and successful in one’s career might be linked to disease and longevity.

So they assumed having an obituary in the New York Times (NYT) was a fair indication of having achieved career fame and success.

They took information from 1,000 consecutive obituaries published in the NYT between 2009 and 2011 and analyzed it according to gender, age, occupation and cause of death.

They sorted the results into four broad occupational groups: sports players and performers (such as athletes, singers, musicians, dancers and actors); non-performing creative people (such as writers, visual artists and composers); political, business and military people; and academic, religious, and professional.

They found that sports players, performers and people who had creative occupations were more likely to die younger (at average age of 77.4, 77.1 and 78.5 years respectively), whereas older deaths were more common among those with military, business, and political occupations (84.7, 83.3 and 82.1 years respectively).

They also found that male obituaries vastly outnumbered female (813 vs 186 respectively) and the average age of death was higher for men than for women (80.4 vs 78.8).

The life expectancy for a US citizen born today is about 76 years for males and 81 years for females. Yet, the average age of death for the males in the NYT obituaries was older and females younger than these averages, something that may be explained by the fact there was a higher proportion of NYT females than males in performance and sports (38% vs 18%) and fewer in professional occupations (12% vs 27%).

When they looked at causes of death among the NYT obituaries, the researchers found younger death were more often linked to accidents (66.2 years), infection (including HIV, 68.6) and organ-specific cancers (73.0).

The term “old age” was most often given as the cause of death among philanthropists, academics and doctors, and used less often to describe cause of death among sports players, performers and creatives.

Death due to cancer was cited most often in performers (27%) and creatives (29%), with lung cancer (which the authors consider a likely indication of chronic smoking) cited most often for performers (7.2%) and least often for professionals (1.4%).

The researchers conclude:

“Fame and achievement in performance-related careers may be earned at the cost of a shorter life expectancy. In such careers, smoking and other risk behaviours may be either causes or effects of success and/or early death.”

Co-author Richard Epstein, Director of the Clinical Informatics & Research Centre in The Kinghorn Cancer Centre at St Vincent’s, says in a statement that because theirs is a one-off retrospective study, it can’t prove anything, but it nevertheless raises some interesting questions.

For instance, if what the study suggests is true, that performers and sports players who achieve success and fame tend to die younger, does this mean that becoming famous early in life puts you on a path to poorer health later on when you are no longer in the limelight?

Or could it be that the psychological stress and family pressures that often accompany success in the public eye lead to self-destructive behavior that stay with you through life?

Or does perhaps the risk-taker mamiximize his or her chances of success with behaviors that boost short term performance, with the help of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs?

“Any of these hypotheses could be viewed as a health warning to young people aspiring to become stars,” says Epstein.

In another study published a few months ago in the BMJ, researchers found that Olympic medallists on average live 2.8 years longer than the general population. Given the suggestions of the NYT study, it would be interesting to see the extent to which fame, as well as being a medallist, affects this result.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD