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Want to be a singer, actor or athlete? It may mean an earlier death

Fame may come truly come at a dear price -- a shorter lifespan.

Researchers have found that people in performance-related careers who became famous died earlier than those who became famous in other career fields.

To see whether fame, your choice of job and your demise were linked, researchers looked at obituaries in the New York Times with the theory that if you were well-known enough to get a write-up it meant you achieved some notoriety in your field. The study analyzed 1,000 obituaries published in the New York Times between 2009 and 2011.

Researchers then looked at the gender of the person, their age at death, their occupation and the cause of death. Subjects were divided into four different categories: performance/sport (including actors, singers, musicians, dancers, and sportspeople), non-performing creative (including writers, composers and visual artists), business/military/political, and professional/academic/religious.

More men had obituaries in the New York Times than women (813 versus 186). The average age of death was 80.4 and 78.8 for the men and women written about respectively. For comparison, the average U.S. lifespan is 76 years old for males and 81 females.

The youngest group of deaths belonged to the performers/sports (average age 77.2). Next were creative workers (78.5), professionals/academics (81.7) and business/military/political careers (83).

The most common causes of the deaths were accidents, infections (including HIV) and certain cancers. Cancer-related deaths were most frequent in performers (excluding sports) and creative workers at 27 and 29 percent respectively.

Lung cancer deaths were most common in performance-based celebrities (7.2 percent) and least common for professionals and academics (1.4 percent).

Study author Richard Epstein, director of the Clinical Informatics & Research Centre at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre in St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, said in a press release that while the study can't prove that choosing the performing arts or an athletic career means choosing an earlier death, it does bring up some interesting points.

"First, if it is true that successful performers and sports players tend to enjoy shorter lives, does this imply that fame at younger ages predisposes to poor health behaviors in later life after success has faded? Or that psychological and family pressures favoring unusually high public achievement lead to self-destructive tendencies throughout life? Or that risk-taking personality traits maximize one's chances of success, with the use of cigarettes, alcohol or illicit drugs improving one's performance output in the short term? Any of these hypotheses could be viewed as a health warning to young people aspiring to become stars," he commented.

Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist who specializes in celebrity behavior, warned the BBC that there are very few celebrities so the pool isn't big enough to really study the effects of fame on people's lifespan. Still, she had some theories on why performance-related fame may lead to an earlier demise, including "the pressure to live up to a public image, which can lead to risky behaviors" or "particular personal characteristics predispose people to wanting a career in the public arena."

The study was published on April 17 in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.