Who Lives Longest? The Surprising Health Benefits of Fame

The obituary section of NYT is a rarefied community for medical research, composed of the tiny few who reach the pinnacle of achievement. Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty

The NewYork Times obituary section can tell us an awful lot. Using 999 consecutive obituaries that were published between 2009 and 2011, Australian researchers collected basic information on life span, occupation, cause of death, and gender of this famous bunch. And, perhaps not shockingly, the first detail they found was a large imbalance between the number of obituaries for men (813) and women (186), due no doubt to gender inequality as this group was coming of age.

Then there’s the fact that famous men outlived famous women by about a year. Why? It’s likely because famous women of that era were so often entertainers and athletes, the group in the study with the shortest life span, at 77 or 78 years. The authors found more cancer-related deaths among the performers and “creatives,” including and especially deaths from lung cancer. In other words, those closest to the white-hot glare of the public spotlight—singers and dancers and athletes—fared the worst.

So who lived the longest? That honor goes to members of the military, who died at an average age of 85. It’s a counterintuitive result, unless one keeps in mind that this study examines only the tiny few who reach the pinnacle of achievement. Next come the professionals and academics who died in their early 80s of, simply, “old age.” They are followed by politicians who, on average, lived to be 82.

Although the small gradations in longevity among the famous are interesting, this study reveals a larger truth about health care: famous men in the study lived significantly longer—about four years—than “normal” men. There is a statistical quirk at play: many people who die young don’t live long enough to become famous, overloading the “regular” side with younger deaths. This imbalance, however, can’t fully explain the truth of the finding that, as the authors write, “wealth, recognition or related advantages” provide the famous a superior brand of health care. The study is thus grist for those who see good health care as a basic human right.