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Rock/pop stars going solo found more likely to die young

Dec. 20, 2012
Courtesy of BMJ-British Medical Journal 
and World Science staff

Burning the candle at both ends may be some­what less harm­ful if you’re among friends, if a new study is any in­di­cation.

Re­search pub­lished in the on­line scien­tific jour­nal BMJ Open con­cludes that suc­cess­ful so­lo rock/pop stars are around twice as likely to die young as those in equally fa­mous bands. And stars who die of drug and al­co­hol prob­lems are more likely to have had a dif­fi­cult or abu­sive child­hood.

Re­search­ers an­a­lyzed sta­tis­tics on 1,489 North Amer­i­can and Eu­ro­pe­an rock and pop stars over a half-cen­tu­ry be­tween 1956, the era of El­vis Pres­ley’s com­mer­cial break­out, and 2006. Their achieve­ments were cal­cu­lat­ed from in­terna­t­ional polls and Top-40 chart suc­cesses. De­tails of their per­son­al lives and child­hoods were drawn from a range of mu­sic and of­fi­cial web­sites, pub­lished bi­ogra­phies, and an­tholo­gies.

Dur­ing the pe­ri­od, 137 stars died, or 9.2 per­cent. The ave­rage age of death was 45 for North Amer­i­can stars and 39 for those from Eu­rope. The gap in life ex­pect­an­cy be­tween rock and pop stars and the gene­ral popula­t­ion was found to wid­en con­sist­ently un­til 25 years af­ter fame had been achieved, af­ter which death rates be­gan to ap­proach those of the gene­ral popula­t­ion—but only for Eu­ro­pe­an stars.

So­lo per­form­ers were around twice as likely to die early as those in a band, ir­re­spec­tive of wheth­er they were Eu­ro­pe­an (9.8 per­cent vs 5.4 per­cent) or North Amer­i­can (22.8 per­cent vs 10.2 per­cent).

The find­ings raises the ques­tion of wheth­er the peer sup­port of­fered by band-mates may help pro­tect some mu­sicians against their own self-destructive ten­den­cies, the sci­en­tists say. While gen­der and the age at which fame was reached did­n’t in­flu­ence life ex­pect­an­cy, eth­ni­city did, with non-whites found more likely to die ear­ly. And the chances of sur­viv­al in­creased among those achiev­ing fame af­ter 1980.

Nearly half of those who died as a re­sult of drugs, al­co­hol, or vi­o­lence were found to have at least one un­fa­vor­a­ble fac­tor in their child­hoods, com­pared with one in four of those dy­ing of oth­er causes.

These “ad­verse child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences” in­clud­ed phys­i­cal, sex­u­al, or emo­tion­al abuse; liv­ing with a chron­ic­ally de­pressed, su­i­cid­al, men­tally or phys­ic­ally ill per­son; liv­ing with a sub­stance abuser; hav­ing a close rel­a­tive in pris­on; and com­ing from a bro­ken home or one in which do­mes­tic vi­o­lence fea­tured.

Four out of five dead stars with more than one un­fa­vor­a­ble child­hood fac­tor died from sub­stance mis­use or vi­o­lence-related causes.

A ca­reer as a rock­/pop star may be alluring to youth es­cap­ing an un­hap­py child­hood, but it may al­so pro­vide the re­source to feed a pre­dis­po­si­tion to un­healthy or risky be­haviors, say the au­thors.

“Pop/rock stars are among the most com­mon role mod­els for chil­dren, and sur­veys sug­gest that grow­ing num­bers as­pire to pop star­dom,” they write. “A pro­lifera­t­ion of TV tal­ent shows and new op­por­tun­i­ties cre­at­ed by the in­ternet can make this dream ap­pear more achiev­a­ble than ev­er.” But they cau­tion: “It is im­por­tant they [chil­dren] rec­og­nise that sub­stance use and risk tak­ing may be root­ed in child­hood ad­vers­ity rath­er than see­ing them as sym­bols of suc­cess.”


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Successful solo rock/pop stars are around twice as likely to die young as those in equally famous bands, indicates research published in the online research journal BMJ Open. And those who died of drug and alcohol problems were more likely to have had a difficult or abusive childhood than those dying of other causes, the findings showed. Researchers analyzed statistics on 1,489 North American and European rock and pop stars over a half-century between 1956, the era of Elvis Presley’s commercial breakout, and 2006. Their achievements were calculated from international polls and top 40 chart successes. Details of their personal lives and childhoods were drawn from a range of music and official websites, published biographies, and anthologies. During the period, 137, or 9.2% stars died. The average age of death was 45 for North American stars and 39 for those from Europe. The gap in life expectancy between rock and pop stars and the general population was found to widen consistently until 25 years after fame had been achieved, after which death rates began to approach those of the general population—but only for European stars. Solo performers were around twice as likely to die early as those in a band, irrespective of whether they were European (9.8% vs 5.4%) or North American (22.8% vs 10.2%). The findings raises the question of whether the peer support offered by band-mates may help protect some musicians against their own self-destructive tendencies, the scientists say. While gender and the age at which fame was reached didn’t influence life expectancy, ethnicity did, with non-whites found more likely to die early. And the chances of survival increased among those achieving fame after 1980. Nearly half of those who died as a result of drugs, alcohol, or violence were found to have at least one unfavorable factor in their childhoods, compared with one in four of those dying of other causes. These “adverse childhood experiences” included physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; living with a chronically depressed, suicidal, mentally or physically ill person; living with a substance abuser; having a close relative in prison; and coming from a broken home or one in which domestic violence featured. Four out of five dead stars with more than one unfavourable childhood factor died from substance misuse or violence-related causes. A career as a rock/pop star may be attractive to those escaping an unhappy childhood, but it may also provide the resource to feed a predisposition to unhealthy/risky behaviours, say the authors. “Pop/rock stars are among the most common role models for children, and surveys suggest that growing numbers aspire to pop stardom,” they write. “A proliferation of TV talent shows and new opportunities created by the internet can make this dream appear more achievable than ever.” But they caution: “It is important they [children] recognise that substance use and risk taking may be rooted in childhood adversity rather than seeing them as symbols of success.”