"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Study: Nobel Prize may add two years to life

Jan. 20, 2007
Courtesy University of Warwick
and World Science staff

New re­search has found that a No­bel Prize brings more than just cash and ku­dos—it may al­so add near­ly two years to your life.

Two economists conducted the study to try to an­swer a long-stand­ing ques­tion: wheth­er so­cial sta­tus alone can af­fect peo­ple’s life­span. Stud­ies of mon­key groups sug­gest as much, but in hu­mans it has been hard to sep­a­rate any pos­i­tive ef­fect of “sta­tus” from the ef­fect of wealth that sta­tus of­ten brings, the re­search­ers said.

Nobel Prize for physics and chemistry. (Library of Congress)

No­bel Prize win­ners seemed an ideal group to stu­dy, they added, as the win­ners can be seen as hav­ing their sta­tus sud­den­ly dropped on them. They al­so come with a ready-made com­par­i­son group: sci­en­t­ists who were nom­i­nat­ed for a No­bel, but did­n’t win.

The study is by An­drew Os­wald, an econ­o­m­ist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of War­wick, U.K., and Mat­thew Rab­len, for­mer­ly of War­wick and now a U.K. gov­ern­ment econ­o­m­ist. The work is pub­lished on­line this month on the uni­ver­si­ty’s web­site.

The re­search­ers ex­am­ined nom­i­nees in phys­ics and chem­is­try be­tween 1901 and 1950, as the lists of nom­i­nees are kept se­cret for 50 years. They coun­t­ed males on­ly, to side­step the com­p­li­ca­tion of male-fe­male life­span dif­fer­ences. They al­so dropped four men who died ear­ly for non-biological rea­sons, such as com­bat in war. 

This pro­ce­dure re­sulted in a list of 524 male sci­en­tists, of whom 135 ac­tu­al­ly won the cov­eted hon­or. The av­er­age life­span for the whole list was just over 76 years, they found, but win­ners lived on av­er­age 1.4 years long­er than the oth­ers. When the re­search­ers com­pared on­ly win­ners and nom­i­nees from the same coun­try, the gap widened more—an­other eight months on av­er­age.

“S­ta­tus seems to work a kind of health-giving mag­ic. Once we do the sta­tis­ti­cal cor­rec­tions, walk­ing across that plat­form in Stock­holm ap­par­ent­ly adds about two years to a sci­en­tist’s life­span. How sta­tus does this, we just don’t know,” Os­wald said.

The re­search­ers al­so con­clud­ed that the amount of ac­tu­al prize mon­ey made no no­tice­a­ble dif­fer­ence. They stud­ied this by check­ing life­spans against vari­a­tions in the size of the boon, which were con­si­der­able. And even be­ing nom­i­nat­ed sev­er­al times failed to ex­tend one’s years, they found: on­ly win­ning counted.

* * *

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New research has found that a Nobel Prize brings more than just cash and kudos—it may also add nearly two years to your life. Two economists conducted the study to try to answer a long-standing question: whether social status alone can affect people’s lifespan. Studies of monkey packs suggest as much, but in humans it has been hard to separate any positive effect of “status” from the effect of simple wealth that status often brings, the researchers said. Nobel Prize winners seemed an ideal group to study, they added, as the winners could be seen as having their status suddenly dropped on them. They also come with a ready-made comparison group: scientists who were nominated for a Nobel, but didn’t win. The study is by Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, U.K., and Matthew Rablen, formerly of Warwick and now a government economist. The work is published online this month on the university’s website. The researchers examined nominees in physics and chemistry between 1901 and 1950, as the full lists of nominees are kept secret for 50 years. They counted males only, to sidestep the complication of male-female lifespan differences. They also dropped four men who died early for non-biological reasons, such as combat in war. This procedure resulted in a list of 524 male scientists, of whom 135 actually won the coveted honor. The average life span for the whole list was just over 76 years, they found, but winners lived on average 1.4 years longer than the others. When the researchers compared only winners and nominees from the same country, the gap widened more—another eight months on average. “Status seems to work a kind of health-giving magic. Once we do the statistical corrections, walking across that platform in Stockholm apparently adds about 2 years to a scientist’s lifespan. How status does this, we just don’t know,” Oswald said. The researchers also concluded that the amount of actual prize money made no noticeable difference. They studied this by checking lifespans against variations in the size of the boon, which were con siderable. And even being nominated several times failed to extend life, they found: only winning counted.