The Reasons Why Rock & Pop Stars Die Young

Whitney Houston Performing on GMA 2009

American singer Whitney Houston performing on Good Morning America (Central Park, New York City) on September 1, 2009. Credit: Tm (CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to a new report, rock and pop stars die young. Many of them die from drug overdoses, AIDS, or drunk-driving accidents. The study found that the average lifespan of American musical stars in pop, rock, and rap genres is only 45. The average European stars die on average at age 39.

The scientists published their findings in the British Medical Journal. There are many examples of stars dying young and it’s hard to pin down exactly by how many years a star’s life is cut down when he or she becomes famous.

However, scientists can show how much higher or lower the chance of dying is compared to a similar person in the average population. A North American pop star 40 years after fame has a chance of survival of 87% of what’s expected in the general population.

Mark Bellis and his team reviewed the lives of nearly 1,500 rock, pop, and rap stars. Details were gleaned about their deaths, personal lives, and childhoods from websites, biographies and anthologies. During a 50-year period, from 1956 to 2006, 137 of the stars, about 10%, died. Solo artists were twice as likely to die before their time as someone who played in a band. Age and gender didn’t affect life expectancy, but ethnicity did. Non-Caucasians were the most likely to die at an early age.

Many died of cancer and cardiovascular disease, which could be the result of living a hard life. The younger a star died, the more likely the death was a result of risky behavior involving drugs, alcohol, violence or suicide. Half of those who died as a result of these factors had at least one unfavorable factor in their childhoods, like child abuse, domestic violence, or a close family member with mental illness. Four out of five dead stars with more than one of these childhood experiences died from substance abuse or violently.

Fame and fortune encouraged stars to throw caution to the wind. It could also be that risk-taking and wild behavior predate fame as a way to cope with a difficult past. Careers as rock or pop stars might be attractive to people trying to escape an unhappy childhood, but it could also provide the resources to feed a predisposition to unhealthy and risky behaviors, which might not be so easily available to other people. Musicians playing in bands live longer because their bandmates help buffer the negative influences, and they also provide emotional support.

Reference: “Dying to be famous: retrospective cohort study of rock and pop star mortality and its association with adverse childhood experiences” by Mark A Bellis, Karen Hughes, Olivia Sharples, Tom Hennell and Katherine A Hardcastle, 19 December 2012, British Medical Journal.
DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-002089

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