Pop Culture

Rockers really are more likely to die early

Living fast and dying young has long been part of rock ’n’ roll lore.

And now there are statistics that affirm the image, according to a study released Tuesday.

Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, whose report appeared in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, studied a sample of North American and British rock and pop stars and concluded they are more than twice as likely to die a premature death as ordinary citizens of the same age.

The team studied 1,064 stars from the rock, punk, rap, R&B, electronic and new age genres in the “All Time Top 1,000” albums published in 2000. They compared each artist’s age at death with that of European and U.S. citizens of similar backgrounds, sex and ethnicity.

Mark Bellis, leader of the study, said his research showed the stereotype of rock stars was true — recreational drugs and alcohol-fueled parties take a toll.

The report found that, between two and 25 years after the onset of fame, the risk of death was two to three times higher for music stars than for members of the general population matched for age, sex, nationality and ethnic background.

In all, 100 of the stars studied had died — 7.3 percent of women and 9.6 percent of men. They included Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

The average age of death was 42 for North American stars and 35 for European stars.

Long-term drug or alcohol problems accounted for more than one in four of the deaths, the study found. The first years of success are the most dangerous, with both British and American musicians three times more likely to die than the average person during that time.

While the music world is not only filled but also fueled these days by aging music stars — Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan among them — industry observers were not surprised by the findings.

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“Being a pop star is a crash-and-burn sort of lifestyle,” said rock journalist and broadcaster John Aizlewood. “If you go into it, you want adulation. You want to respond to the crowd. You can’t be a pop star in isolation. If you need that adulation, you obviously have other needs.

“It was ever thus. If you look back to Victorian times — Byron, Shelley those kind of people — being creative requires living on the edge in a way that being in insurance doesn’t.”

Dr. Tim Williams, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction at the University of Bristol, also said the increased mortality might be a byproduct of the artistic personality.

“You could argue that rock stars and pop stars have a sensation-seeking personality, that they have this desire to put themselves in these terrifying situations — performing in front of a large group of people — that also makes them vulnerable to dependence on substances, which markedly increases mortality,” he said.

In good news for aging rockers, the study found that after 25 years of fame, stars’ death rates began to return to normal — at least in Europe. A European star still living 25 years after achieving fame faces a similar mortality rate to the European public. U.S. artists, however, continue to die in greater numbers.

The study said this difference “might be explained by differences in longer-term experience of fame, with more performing in later years ... continued media interest and associated stress and substance use in North American pop stars.”

Additionally, said Bellis, “Many (U.S. musicians) die in poverty and there is not the same type of public-health provision there” as in Europe.

“The music business would do well to take the health risks of substance abuse and risk-taking behaviors more seriously,” wrote Bellis, the lead author of the study.

“This is not only because of the long-term effects on the stars themselves, but also because of the influence these stars exert on others.”

Dr. Francis Keaney, an expert in addiction treatment at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said the death rates are likely to fall in the future.

“People are better educated about drug and alcohol abuse than they were in the past,” Keaney said. “Thirty years ago, you could name dozens of people living hedonistic lifestyles in the music industry. Today there are far fewer.”

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