Most medal-winning athletes returning home from the Olympic Games can look forward to a longer life than most of us. A new study has found that Olympic medalists live an average of 2.8 years longer than everyone else, whether they’re gymnasts, golfers, runners, or athletes in any other event.
The scientists published their findings in two studies in the journal BMJ.[1,2] The first study used data on 15,174 male and female athletes who won medals in the Olympic Games since 1896. It found that 30 years after any given Olympics, 8% more medalists were alive than others from their country and birth year. The effect wasn’t just seen in Olympic athletes who participated in high-endurance and high-intensity events. Researchers found no difference in mortality between cyclists, rowers, tennis stars and cricket players.
If the sport had high levels of physical contact and collisions, this could impact the mortality risk of the Olympians. Olympians in sports with higher bodily collisions, like boxing, had an 11% higher mortality risk than those in sports with minimal collisions. The researchers hypothesize that medalists live longer because of their intensive training, exercise levels that last long throughout life, or because their success leads to increased wealth or education levels. More research is needed to determine the exact reasons for what influences their mortality.
- “Survival of the fittest: retrospective cohort study of the longevity of Olympic medallists in the modern era” by Philip M Clarke and William J Mallon, 13 December 2012, BMJ.
- “Mortality in former Olympic athletes: retrospective cohort analysis” by R Zwiers, D van Bodegom and R G J Westendorp, 13 December 2012, BMJ.