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Kiss of Death: Fame May Shorten Lives for Rock Stars, Athletes

Update Date: Apr 18, 2013 10:18 AM EDT

Perhaps the price of fame is a shorter flame.

A recent study examining 1,000 New York Times obituaries found that famous performers, like athletes and musicians, live, on average, shorter lives than people who have illustrious careers in the military or in business. While the researchers admit that their results cannot lead to any definitive statements about why that is, it certainly raises questions.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the researchers looked at 1,000 obituaries published consecutively in the prestigious newspaper between 2009 and 2011. For each obituary, the researchers recorded the subject's age, profession and cause of death.

From there, they created occupational categories. The performance/sport category included singers, musicians, dancers, actors and athletes. Creative non-performers were made up of visual artists, writers and composers. Business, military members and politicians were in their own section, as were religious figures, academics and professionals.

Pacific Standard reports that athletes, performers and creatives had the shortest lives - not short, by any means, but all short of 80, at 77.4 years, 77.1 years and 78.5 years respectively. Meanwhile, those who made their names in the military, politics and business hung on considerably longer, living to the average ages of 84.7, 82.1 and 83.3 years, respectively.

The obituaries in the New York Times were overwhelmingly male, with 813 male subjects and 186 females. On average, men profiled in these obituaries lived longer lives than the average American man, living 80.35 years compared to 75.6 years for the average man. Women in the obituaries did not fare as well. While the average American woman lives for 80.8 years, the average woman featured in the New York Times obituaries was 78.8 years old at the time of her death. The researchers explain this by noting that women were overrepresented in the performance categories and underrepresented in the academic and business ones.

There are several reasons for the gap among careers. A significant portion of performers and athletes did of accidents or infections - particularly lung cancer. That may mean that performers and athletes are more likely to smoke and perhaps take on other deadly habits, like alcohol or drugs, that the other professions typically eschew.

In addition, Reuters suggests that certain psychological tendencies and family pressures may lead people to seek fame in performance and sports careers while, at the same time, leading to destructive behaviors that could shorten lives.

"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?" study co-author Richard Epstein, a director at the Kinghorn Cancer Center at St. Vincent's Hospital in Australia, postulated to Reuters.

The study was published in QJM.

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