The Longevity of Stars

This is a film buff‘s sequel to “Conducting, Baseball, and Longevity.” There, I say that

arm-waving probably is not the key to conductors’ long lives. The evidence for that assertion is found in an analysis of the longevity of baseball players. Using the Play Index (subscription) tool at, I compiled lists of deceased major-league players who either pitched at least 1,000 innings or played in at least 1,000 games….

In sum, pitchers do not live as long as other players. And catchers, though they live longer than pitchers, do not live as long as other non-pitchers. So much for the idea that longevity is positively related to and perhaps abetted by vigorous and frequent arm motion.

What about the longevity of baseball players in relation to that of the population of white males? I derived the following graphs from the Play Index and the table of life expectancies (both linked above):

I chose 1918 as the cutoff point for ballplayers because that is the last year in the sample of 112 conductors. (As of today, only 15 of the thousands of players born in 1918 or earlier survive** — not enough to affect the comparison.) Before I bring in the conductors, I want to point out the positive trend for longevity among ballplayers (indicated by the heavy black line), especially in relation to the trend for white, 20-year old males. The linear fit, though weak, is statistically robust, and it reflects the long, upward rise in ballplayers’ longevity that is evident in the scatter plot.

I now add conductors to the mix:

For the period covered by the statistics (birth years from 1825 through 1918), conductors enjoyed a modest and significantly insignificant increase in longevity…. By 1918, ballplayers had almost caught up with conductors. The trends suggest that, on average, today’s MLB players can expect to live longer than today’s conductors. Conductors, nevertheless, seem destined to live longer than their contemporaries in the population at large, but not because they (conductors) wave their arms a lot.

Here is my take on all of this: Conductors [and] baseball players … (among members of other identifiable groups) tend to be long-lived because they tend to be physically and mentally vigorous, to begin with. Conductors must possess stamina and intelligence to do what they do…. And, contrary to the popular view of athletes as “dumb,” they are not (as a group); in fact, intelligence and good health (a key component of athleticism) are are tightly bound.

Moreover, conductors (who make music) [and] ballplayers (who play a game) … are engaged in occupations that yield what Robert Atlas calls “gratifying stress.” And, as persons who usually enjoy above-average incomes, they are likely to enjoy better diets and better health-care than most of their contemporaries.

I conclude that occupation — conducting, playing professional baseball, etc. — is a function of the main influences on longevity — mental and physical robustness — and not the other way around. Occupation influences longevity only to the extent that increases it (at the margin) by bestowing “gratifying stress” and/or material rewards, or reduces it (at the margin) by bestowing “frustrating stress” and/or exposure to health-or life-threatening conditions.

Professional actors would seem to have much in common with ballplayers and conductors. They perform for the public, and the not-insignificant mental and physical demands of acting are met with varying degrees of recognition, adulation, and disapproval by their peers and the public. So, it would seem that actors (in general) ought to possess the mental and physical prerequisites of long life, and that “gratifying stress” might add to their longevity. Further, successful actors — by virtue of above-average earnings — should enjoy better diets and health-care than their contemporaries among the general public.

Perhaps the most prominent actors and actresses (to revert to “sexist” terminology) are those who have been nominated for an Academy Award as best in a leading or supporting role. I obtained the names of Oscar-nominated actors and actresses with this search tool, which is provided at the website of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Search results indicate which of the actors and actresses are deceased. I obtained dates of birth and death from the Internet Movie Database. For consistency with my analysis of ballplayers and conductors, I limited my data set to deceased actors and actresses who were born in 1918 and earlier years. I included two living actresses — Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, born in 1916 and 1917, respectively — whose presence in the sample does not introduce a downward bias, given their advanced ages.

The resulting sample consists of 268 actors and actresses — 155 of the former, 113 of the latter — distributed as follows:

  • 54 actresses who received at least one nomination for a leading role (8 of whom also were nominated at least once for a supporting role)
  • 59 actresses who were nominated only for supporting roles
  • 71 actors who received at least one nomination for a leading role (15 of whom also were nominated at least once for a supporting role)
  • 84 actors who were nominated only for supporting roles.

The following graphs compare the longevity of these Oscar nominees (by gender and in total) with (a) the longevity trend for conductors, indicated by the dashed black lines, and (b) the life expectancies of whites at various ages, indicated by the orange, light green, and red lines (dashed for females, solid for males). Data points and trend lines for Oscar nominees are rendered in olive green.

The trend lines for the longevity of Oscar nominees are not statistically significant, but they accurately represent the average longevity of those nominees relative to the longevity of conductors and the life expectancies of whites at ages 20, 40, and 60. Some observations:

  • Oscar-nominated actors and actresses generally live far longer than one would expect of a person who had survived to the entry age for the action profession (probably about 20).
  • The trend for Oscar-nominated actresses is positive and in line with the trend for conductors, but is not rising as rapidly as the life expectancy of females in the population at large.
  • The trend for Oscar-nominated actors certainly is not positive, and may be negative. (More about this, below.)
  • In general, women have gone from living only as long as men (in the mid-1800s) to living significantly longer than men. Is there a “men’s health” issue here?)

On the last point, there is a statistically significant difference in the average ages of actors and actresses in the sample. The “bonus” for being a female is a bit more than 4 years.

Do the added gratification and (presumably) greater income that accompany leading roles have an influence on longevity? The statistical evidence is mixed. A regression on the entire sample yields a weak positive relationship between age at death and the total number of nominations received for leading and supporting roles, and a weak negative relationship between age at death and the number of nominations for leading roles.

As it turns out, those relationships do not hold for the the women in the sample; they are entirely attributable to the men. For the men, every nomination — whether for a leading or supporting role — translates to 1.8 additional years of life, but every nomination for a leading role translates to 2 fewer years of life. On average, the men who were nominated only for supporting roles outlived by almost 4 years the men who were nominated for leading roles, though the longevity trend for supporting actors is slightly negative (but not significantly so).

It seems that men who rise to the top of the film-acting profession are more likely than their less-favored peers to succumb to diseases that shorten lives: alcoholism, heart conditions, cancers, and so on. It may be that “driven” leading men are less able to cope with stress than supporting actors — and actresses.

Whatever the case, prominent film actors and actresses join ballplayers and conductors as members of a profession that requires the prerequisites of long life: mental and physical vigor. But the longevity trends among those actors and actresses — especially among the actors — suggest that the negative stresses of their profession have, with time, blunted the advantages of high income. As a result, when it comes to longevity, the general public is gaining on the stars.