Longer or shorter life?

grimm's grave wRecently while reading articles about research on creativity I found contradictory conclusions. That  is not terribly uncommon when it come to creativity research. However, these sets of findings are interesting because it adds fame to the mix. Fame is something the individual does not necessarily control. Granted there are some creative people who purposely hide their works (such as Emily Dickenson) and others who spend more time flaunting their work than creating it (like Salvador Dali). However, one cannot discount the impact that notice from the surrounding society has on a creative person’s life.

The most publicized of these studies, by C. R. Epstein and R. J. Epstein, was published in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.  Despite being from Australia, the researchers decided to use the New York Times as the gauge of fame.  Under the assumption that anybody with an obituary in the New York Times had obtained some degree of fame in their field, they examined the age at death and occupation of these people so see if there was a correlation between types of careers and lifespan.

Who dies the youngest? It was no surprise to see creative performers such as musicians and actors at the top of this list. In fact what shocked me was that the median age at death of years for this group was as old as 77.1 years. The notoriety of dying  young  in mid-career is more easily recalled because actors and musicians typically stop performing long before they reach their seventies.  I tend to forget about these older performers and am mildly surprised to find they were still alive a few days ago, when I hear of their death.

Not far behind this group are athletes (77.4 years),  and then people that worked in creative fields such as artists, writers and composers (78.5 years). But to put this whole study in perspective you need to realize most of the obituaries in the New York Times were for men, and the average  life expectancy for a male in America  is 75.6 years. The individuals in this population were not just well known in their fields, they were wealthier and with wealth comes another set of parameters for longevity.  However the women in this study died at an average of 78.8 years, younger than female average of 80.8, but most of them were performers and athletes.[1]

The next study shows how longevity seems to increase chances for fame in the very group whose life is most shortened by it – the actors and actresses. The life span of all those ever nominated for an Academy Award in a leading or supporting role were compared to life span of those in the acting in the same movies, and born in the same eras who never achieved this distinction.  In total, the life span of 1649 performers were analyzed to show that Academy Award winners lived 3.9 years longer than the other actors and actresses.  Still both groups, the award winners at 79.7 years, and the others at vs. 75.8 years were in the range of average life spans. In this case better health that led to increased longevity may have been the cause rather than result of increased fame, because it allowed the performers to have longer careers and participate in more films. [2]

However, when the lifespan of screenwriters was examined, the reverse was true. Academy Award winning screen writers lived 3.6 years less than less famous screen writers (74.1 versus  77.7 years).  But you may have noticed something else was reversed. These statistics, based on fame in California instead of recognition in New York, show the performers living longer than those working in the creative field, the screen writers.[3]

So there is really no conclusion to be drawn on how creative careers affects longevity, or how fame affects it either. But as I look at these studies, I find the typical fate of these populations seems much better than those few performers whose names are splashed across the media because their careers ended foolishly in midstream.

[1]Epstein, C.R. and Epstein, R.J. (2013), Death in The New York Times: the price of fame is a faster flame. QJM (2013) 106 (6): 517-521
[2] Redelmeier D.A. and Singh S.M.(2001) Survival in Academy Award-winning actors and actresses. Annual of Internal Medicine. 2001 May 15;134(10):955-62.
[3] Redelmeier D.A. and Singh S.M.(2001) Longevity of screenwriters who win an academy award: longitudinal study. BMJ. 2001 Dec 22-29;323(7327):1491-6.
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