A career in showbiz may shorten life expectancy

A new study of New York Times obituaries from two Australian universities suggests that businessmen and politicians live longer than performers and sportsmen

Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson are just a few examples of global superstars whose lives have been dramatically (and publically) cut short. And while their once glittering careers are still the envy of many an aspiring superstar, new research has shown that years spent in showbiz may play a part in shortening life expectancy.

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A study of obituaries in an American newspaper has revealed that actors and musicians – as well as those who choose a career in sport – traditionally die the youngest, at an average age of 77, with scientists pointing out that performers are most likely to develop cancer, particularly in the lungs.

They are outlived by writers, composers and artists who are likely to live to 79, while academics – including historians and economists – survive on average until 82.

In a somewhat surprising finding, those working in business and politics – professions traditionally associated with high levels of stress – are likely to live the longest, dying at an average age of 83.

The research – conducted by a team at the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales – looked at 1,000 obituaries in the New York Times between 2009-2011, publishing their results in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.

However, Professor Richard Epstein (who researched on the project) was quick to stress the limitations of such results. “A one-off rerospective analysis like this can’t prove anything,” he explained, “but it raises some interesting questions.

“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 behaviours in later life after success has faded?

“Or that psychological and family pressures favouring unusually high public achievement lead to self-destructive tendencies throughout life?

“Or that risk-taking personality traits maximise one’s chances of success, with the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illicit drugs improving one’s performance output in the short term?”

Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist specialising in celebrity behaviour, pointed out the limitations of analysing such a select group of individuals, but did concede, “The results are interesting of themselves as they suggest an inherent hazard of a public career and that all that glitters is not necessarily gold.”

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However, she went on to add that “particular personal characteristics predispose people to wanting a career in the public arena” which could arguably lead to certain lifestyle choices that shorten life expectancy.