Longer or shorter life?

grimm's grave wIt is not terribly uncommon to find contradictory conclusions when it come to creativity research. However, adding fame to the mix increases the variation in finding because fame is something the individual does not control. Granted there are some creative people who purposely hide their works (such as Emily Dickinson) and others who spend more time flaunting their work than creating it (like Salvador Dali). However, the fame is usually due to the ideas of the society about the creative.

Exactly how does fame affect the longevity of he artist. Despite being from Australia, C. R. Epstein and R. J. Epstein, 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. (published in  QJM: An International Journal of Medicine)

Who dies the youngest? It was no surprise to see creative performers such as musicians and actors at the top of this list. The shocker is that the median age at death for this group was as old as 77.1 years. I tend to recall the notoriety of performers who died young in mid-career is more easily. Those are the performers whose names are splashed across the media.  Actors and musicians often stop performing long before they reach their seventies. I tend to forget about these older performers, except when I hear that one has just died (Although I occasionally surprised to see some alive and still performing with their names emblazoned on a casino billboard in Oklahoma.)

Athletes (77.4 years),  and then creative people such as artists, writers and composers (78.5 years) live longer than performers, but not much. 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.[1]

The next study shows how longevity seems to increase chances for fame in the very group whose life is most shortened by it–actors. 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.  However, the award winners–at 79.7 years, and the non award winners–at 75.8 years, lived average life spans. In this case better health that led to increased longevity may have been the cause rather than result of increased fame. Performers with longer careers participated in more films. [2]

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

So can any conclusion to be drawn on how creative careers or fame affects longevity? Only that most creative people fare as good or better than the average populations.

[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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