From Elvis to Hendrix, from Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain, rock and pop stars are more than twice as likely to die early compared with the general population, British researchers report.
What’s more, pop stars often die within a few years of achieving fame, often due to drug and alcohol abuse. But it’s their role as icons that worries the researchers behind the report that appears in the September issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
“People should understand the type of lifestyle that many of these performers live,” said study author Mark Bellis, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University. “In addition, the music industry should consider not just the short-term health of popular rock stars, but also the longer term health even as they disappear later into obscurity.”
Part of the problem is living with the stress of fame, Bellis said. “Also, living in an environment of money and fame, which protects people from some of the consequences, which would make members of the general public give up drugs,” he said.
“Generally,” he added, “affluence enhances people’s lifestyles and prolongs life, whereas in this particular case the exposure to fame and what comes with it is associated with a mortality which is higher than that in the general population.”
For the study, Bellis and his colleagues collected data on 1,064 pop artists from North America and Europe who shot to fame between 1956 and 1999. These musicians were all featured in the All Time Top 1,000 albums, selected in 2000, covering rock, punk, rap, R&B, electronica and new age music.
Bellis’s team compared how long the stars survived after achieving fame to the life expectancy of the general population, matching for age, sex, ethnicity and nationality, up to the end of 2005.
The researchers found that between 1956 and 2005, 100 pop music stars had died. Their average age was 42 for North American stars and 35 for European stars. More than one in four died from long-term drug or alcohol problems, the researchers found.
But, for European stars who survived 25 years after achieving fame, their life expectancy returned to normal. North American pop stars, however, continued to suffer higher death rates. “The higher mortality in the rock business has elements about achieving fame, but also coping with obscurity,” Bellis said.
The lesson to be learned from the study, the researchers said, is that the music business needs to take substance abuse and risky behaviors more seriously. Not only because of the effect on the stars, but also because the stars serve as role models for others.
One in 10 children in the United Kingdom wants to be a pop star, the study authors said, and many take part in series such as the British show the “X Factor” and the U.S. hit “American Idol,” which reinforce the attractiveness of a singing career.
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University School of Medicine’s Prevention Research Center, said the study findings should serve as a wake-up call for performers and their fans about the hazards that can accompany fame.
“Pop culture has a major influence on the lifestyle and behaviors of impressionable young people. Rock stars rank among the premier icons of pop culture, and thus de facto role models for their fans,” he said.
“While we have all witnessed the high-profile implosions of the rich and famous, there is little if any scientific data to confirm the intuition that fast living speeds up one’s demise, Katz said. “But that’s just what this study shows.”
“That is a sobering consideration, and one might hope not just for the musicians but their legions of fans,” Katz said. “But translating alarming statistics into policy and behavior change is the real challenge.”