Is Becoming Famous Hazardous to Your Health?

6 min read

According to The New York Times and other media reports, the precise cause of actor Matthew Perry’s death may not be revealed for many months. But the latest scientific research into the links between shortened life-span and fame suggests that the tragic deaths of talented, relatively young people in show business may be part of a recurring pattern, which could be getting worse.

The Friends star was found unresponsive in a hot tub at his house in Los Angeles; these circumstances have led some doctors, invited by the media to speculate, to suggest that the most likely cause may be linked to an event related to past physical problems brought on by his mental health struggles.

Perry’s past struggles with various addictions were well known — he wrote about them in detail in his memoir — and he had been hospitalized for a range of illnesses. He spent a great deal of time in various treatment facilities, even reportedly temporarily turning his own home into a kind of rehab centre for others who were similarly afflicted.

Tragic and untimely deaths like Perry’s suggest that fame itself might be a risk factor. For example, it is striking how superficially similar the circumstances surrounding Perry’s passing appear to be to the tragic end of pop star Whitney Houston, found unconscious in a bathtub in a Beverly Hills hotel in 2012, at age 48. The coroner’s report concluded accidental drowning, with heart disease and cocaine use as contributing factors.

Houston, like Perry, had struggled with addiction problems for many years, as had the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead in the bathroom of his Manhattan apartment in 2014. He was 46.

Research on the Link Between Fame and Fatality

A study of 1064 famous musicians, entitled, “Elvis to Eminem: Quantifying the price of fame through early mortality of European and North American rock and pop stars,” found that from 3 to 25 years after first becoming famous, North American and European pop stars experienced significantly higher mortality — almost two times higher — than demographically matched populations in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

While the study blamed elevated levels of stress, depression, and substance use for the higher death rates, the fact the higher mortality rate extended up to 25 years from the time they became famous suggested that longer-term risk factors, such as cardiovascular disease, may be initiated, perhaps by earlier unhealthy celebrity lifestyles.

Is It the Stress of Fame, or the Kind of Person Who Wants It?

An alternative theory is that the risk can be attributed to the kind of personality that chooses to pursue fame, and that this is where the vulnerability lies. A study entitled, “Dying to Be Famous: Retrospective cohort study of rock and pop star mortality and its association with adverse childhood experiences,” found that the famous were more likely to suffer from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

The study found that for deceased stars, the cause of death was more likely to be substance use in those who’d had more ACEs. The authors suggested that some rock and pop stars may seek fame as a way of escaping deprived or abusive childhoods. ACEs were defined in this research as including experiencing as a child various forms of abuse or living with seriously mentally or physically ill people, a substance-abusing household member, a separated family, or domestic violence.

In Perry’s memoir, he suggested that he became convinced fame would take all his problems away: “I yearned for it more than any other person on the face of the planet,” he wrote. “I needed it. It was the only thing that would fix me. I was certain of it.” Perry also traced his insecurities—and his comic talents—back to a childhood that was split between his divorced parents, but in which he felt a sense of abandonment from both. Most of Perry’s upbringing was in Ottawa, Canada, but he said he was a “latchkey kid” because his mother’s job “just meant I spent a great deal of time alone.”

Investigating “The 27 Club”

When pop stars Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27 between, 1969 and 1971, it looked like there was a thing called “The 27 Club,” and that perhaps 27 was a particularly dangerous age for pop stars, only reinforced when Kurt Cobain took his own life at that age in 1994. Amy Winehouse later passed away at age 27 in 2011.

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A study entitled “Is 27 Really a Dangerous Age for Famous Musicians? Retrospective Cohort Study” tested the “27 club” theory. The researchers compared death rates with the general UK population of 1046 musicians who had had a number-one album in the United Kingdom between 1956 and 2007. While the study found no peak in danger around age 27, the risk of death for famous musicians throughout their 20s and 30s was two to three times higher than for the general UK population.

The authors of the study concluded that the “27 club” is unlikely to be a real phenomenon, but that fame may increase the risk of death among musicians, a risk that’s not limited to age 27. It may be that as social media and reality TV programmes provide more, and quicker, opportunities for worldwide fame to those who don’t have to spend years learning a craft or skill that celebrities might die at even younger ages in the future should fame continue to be a risk factor for a shortened life.

Is Being Famous Getting Worse?

Another study entitled, “Drug-Related Celebrity Deaths: A Cross-Sectional Study,” examined drug-related celebrity deaths between 1970 and 2015 and found 220 celebrities who died a drug-related death with a clear indication of involved substances. The average age at death was 38.6; 75 percent of the deceased were male. Most celebrities died between the ages of 25 and 40. The authors concluded that compared to the 20th century, the total number of celebrities who died from a drug-related death in the 21st century increased, possibly due to an increased involvement of prescription opioids. Deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin were associated with a significantly lower mean age at death compared to deaths in which these substances were not involved.

It may truly be becoming more dangerous to be a celebrity.

Facebook image: Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock

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