Study: People Who Are Famous and Successful Have Shorter Lives

Earning an obituary in the New York Times is generally a good marker for above-average longevity, as long as that success in life isn't accompanied by fame.

PROBLEM: "Her fame was greater than her contributions as an actress," notes the 1962 New York Times obituary titled "Marilyn Monroe Dead, Pills Near." The idea that stars die young is almost a cliché, although it may make more sense to think of Marilyn as the exception rather than the rule. A 2001 study concluded that Academy Award winners live longer than less famous performers, a fact, researchers concluded, that could be partially attributed to their success. Looking at the lives and deaths of people renowned for their contributions in other fields could help get at the distinction between success and fame, and the health risks/benefits of each.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers in Sydney looked at the age and cause of death reported in 1,000 consecutive New York Times obituaries published from 2009 to 2011. "Success," by their measure, was defined as having lived a life that merited an obit in the paper of record. Some of these people were considered to be both successful and famous, like those in performance and sports, and, to a lesser degree, writers and composers, while others -- categorized as business/military/political or     professional/academic/religious -- were mostly just successful.  

RESULTS: People who were both successful and famous died earliest. The average age at death of performers and athletes, 77.2 years, wasn't exactly young, but it was younger than those who had achieved success in other fields. Businesspeople and their ilk lived longest. In fact, their average age at death, 83 years, was higher than the national average for 2010 of 78.7 years. 

Philanthropists, academics, and doctors were more likely than others to die of "old age," a diagnosis that occurred least often for performers, athletes, and creatives.

Incidentally, the gender distribution during this time period was 813 obits for men, 186 for women.

IMPLICATIONS: The biggest difference between the performers/athletes and the others, from the study's perspective, was that they were more publicly recognized for the contributions they made to their field. The authors cite studies showing how drug use and other risky behavior is associated with fame (including later in life, once fame had faded), and question whether that, along with performance-enhancing behavior, might have played a role in the reduced life spans seen here. 

They also note that lung cancer deaths were most common in performers, which they suggest correlates with stars being more likely to be chronic smokers. However, those rates were similar to the national average. In this case, it would seem that fame isn't necessarily associated with more health risks, but instead that people who are successful but not famous may be predisposed to being healthier. 

"Death in The New York Times: the price of fame is a faster flame" is published in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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