Why do some pop stars die young, while others don’t? Drugs and fast living might seem to be the answer, but concert reunion tours of full of aging rockers who indulged their vices to the fullest and kept on ticking. Instead, a team of British scientists has found, what separates the amber-hued legends who died at their peak from the grizzled old vets is a combination of three factors: Whether they were American, whether they were solo acts, and what their childhoods were like.
The study, published in the British journal BMJ Open, examined the lifespans of 1500 pop stars who made it big between 1956 and 2006, and found that for all of them, being famous was hazardous to their health: “Despite often considerable wealth, rock and pop stars suffer higher levels of mortality than demographically matched individuals in the general population.” However, the trio of risk factors accounted for a surprising amount of variation of musicians’ mortality.
Born in the USA? You’ll Die There Too: One Direction shouldn’t start planning on attending their grandchildren’s weddings yet; plenty of European stars have shuffled off this mortal coil before their time. But for some reason, later life is much more perilous for North American musicians. If they survived their first 25 years of fame intact, European stars’ mortality rates fell to something close to the general population’s. Famous Americans, though, did not enjoy such a retirement-age bonus. Are Europeans just better at relaxing than Americans once they hit middle age, maybe because of something to do with tea? We bet it’s something to do with tea.
Solo? Well, you’d better YOLO: Artists who struck it out on their own were more likely to die young than their cohorts who had the support of bandmates. Much more likely in fact: “Solo performers were substantively more likely to have died … with unadjusted mortality being approximately double that of band-member only stars.” Why? It could be because of the added social support that comes with being part of a group, or it could be because solo artists generally are more famous on an individual level than band members. Either way, not great news for Justin Timberlake.
But it all comes back to childhood: Much as in the general population, artists who had experienced what scientists call adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs)—”physical abuse; sexual abuse; substantive verbal abuse; living with a depressed, mentally ill, suicidal or chronically ill person; a substance-abusing household member; a family with an incarcerated household member; a separated family or domestic violence”—were much more likely to die of substance-abuse issues or other risk-related causes like suicide. As the scientists noted:
Fame increases opportunities to indulge established risk behaviours such as substance abuse. However, such risk-taking may be rooted in earlier ACEs, the impact of which even unlimited wealth may not fully redress.
So, if you’re a rock star and you want to live a long and fruitful life, you’d better be European, in a band, and have had a happy childhood. Hey, you know who that sounds like?
Science may have just solved one of music’s enduring mysteries.