Oscar winners tend to be glamorous, successful, and celebrated. But the icing on the cake, according to University of Toronto epidemiologist Donald A. Redelmeier, is that winners also live an average of four years longer than mere nominees.
Before you feel bad for Oscar night losers, consider: This doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it might.
Do winners live longer because they are basking in the healing glow of their statuette — or is it that actors who live more years will simply have more chances to win an Oscar?
In his 2001 study — which got plenty of press at the time — Redelmeier analysed the lifespans of all the actors and actresses who had ever received an Academy Award or nomination. He also compared this group to 887 other actors and actresses, who matched up with the nominees according to age and sex and had appeared in the same films without being nominated.
The average life expectancy of the Oscar winners was about 80 years, compared to about 76 years among the runners-up and the controls. To put those extra four years in perspective: “The absolute difference in life expectancy,” Redelmeier wrote, “is about equal to the societal consequence of curing all cancers in all people for all time.”
That’s no blip. The real question is whether winning an Oscar had anything to do with it.
Redelmeier pointed out that a large body of research equates higher status with longer lives, suggesting that this result, while striking, is just a logical extension of that conclusion. In other words, status differences matter not only between millionaires and the working class, but between the very successful and the very, very successful.
He hypothesized that winners would have more pressure to keep up appearances as well as more resources (money, personal trainers, chefs, etc.) than the nominees, prompting better self-care and, subsequently, longer lives. But he acknowledged that there could be underlying factors — things like resilience and social support — that contributed to both longer lives and better Oscar odds.
The blow back
While the narrative is pretty irresistible — Oscar winners get not only prestige and worldwide fame but years added to their lives! — epidemiological studies rarely give us such tidy results.
In a 2006 re-analysis of Redelmeier’s data, James A. Hanley, a biostatician at McGill University, came to a totally different conclusion. The original paper, he argued, suffered from something called “immortal time bias.”
In other words, Matthew Herper explained in Forbes, “those actors who live longer just have more time to win an Oscar.” After all, Redelmeier observed, the mean age of Oscar winners (39) is higher than the mean age of nominees (35).
Hanley noted that a fair match-up would analyse not how long winners had lived since an arbitrary point (such as birth or turning 50), but how many additional years they had lived since winning. When Hanley did just that, he found the winners’ longevity advantage vanished.
As far back as 1843, British epidemiologist William Farr warned against analysing people from birth as if they had been in certain categories all along. You could easily conclude, for example, that generals live longer than lieutenants — but that’s probably because many lieutenants die before they have a chance to advance to the rank of general.
Similarly, another 2011 study argued, healthy people will have the chance to act in more movies, giving them more chances to win acting prizes. Oscar winners do live longer, the statisticians concluded, but “there is not strong evidence that winning an Oscar increases life expectancy.”
So don’t cry too hard for the losers — they just might be the winners the next time around.
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