The new study builds on findings published in 2007 that found music stars were nearly twice as likely as the general population to die early.
(Photo: NBC-TV via AP)
- Music celebrities more likely to die young
- Some problems may be rooted in difficult childhoods
- European stars have same risk as regular folks after 25 years
The latest study to look at rock and pop star deaths suggests the odds were stacked against Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse.
But Keith Richards has statistics on his side.
The study, which expands on an earlier version, reconfirms that music celebrities really are more likely than the rest of us to die young, but shows that solo artists (such as Presley, Jackson and Winehouse) and North Americans may face some extra risks, while those who had rough childhoods may be particularly likely to succumb to alcohol and drugs.
Aging European rockers, though, get some good news: Once they've been famous for a quarter century, they are no more likely than commoners to die before their time. (Richards, the hard-living Rolling Stone who turned 69 this week, is British and has been famous for about 50 years).
The research, published today in the online journal BMJ Open, does not detail the risks for any individual, but uses official websites, news stories, biographies and other publicly available records to examine patterns among 1,489 pop and rock stars from Europe and North America who became famous between 1956 and 2006. Of those, 137, or 9.2%, had died by early 2012.
The findings build on those from a smaller study published in 2007 that found music stars were nearly twice as likely as the general population to die prematurely, at least in their first couple decades of fame, says lead researcher Mark Bellis of the Centre for Public Health, Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.
One new detail: Solo artists — defined as those who have released at least one solo album — appear to have twice the risk of early death as those who make music in bands, even when they seem to be equally famous, Bellis says. "You often hear band members talking in interviews about how they provide each other with peer support," and that may make a difference, he says. He says it's also possible that solo fame has some extra, corrosive effect on behavior.
The study also hints that rockers who live hard, risky lives with lots of drugs and alcohol often have something in common with non-famous people who take similar risks: childhoods made difficult by factors from abuse and neglect to sick or missing parents. So-called "adverse childhood experiences" have been linked to adult drug and alcohol abuse and to premature death in other studies.
Nearly half of the stars who died from substance abuse, violence or suicide had such factors in their backgrounds, while just one quarter of those who died otherwise did. The researchers were not able to learn whether childhood stresses were more common overall in stars who died than those who survived, but they write that the findings suggest that "some of the risks accredited to the rock and pop star lifestyle may in fact have more mundane roots."
Bellis says: "They may have exactly the same risk factors as everyone else. Their wealth and fame may give them more access to drugs and alcohol but not be the source of their problems."
If a rock star study brings attention to the link between childhood adversity and adult health risks, that will be a good thing, says Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden, an addiction treatment and research organization based in Center City, Minn. "It's increasingly accepted as a risk factor for addiction," he says.
He says he hopes the recording industry takes note and offers artists more support: "They really should want to work to keep these people alive rather than allowing them to have these tragic, public deaths."
Artists established since 1980 have been less likely to die than those who became famous earlier, so that may already be happening, Bellis says.
He says he hopes fans get the message that what they may perceive as a glamorous lifestyle can be dangerous.
Caroline Knorr, parenting editor with the advocacy group Common Sense Media, agrees. "There's a history of glorifying substance abuse in the rock star canon," and with Twitter, Facebook and other social media, stars often now have a direct line to young fans, she said in an e-mail.
But she says kids can also be inspired by stars who have recovered from substance abuse and other problems. She urges parents to share those stories with their kids — and also to "remember that it is possible for your kids to enjoy a star's music and not embrace the lifestyle that the star purports to have."