America’s Most Wanted Profession Is Also Its Most Dangerous

It’s not just drugs and alcohol.

Prince (Getty Images)

Prince wasn’t supposed to die. And not in the sense of, “He still had so much art and beauty to give his fans!” He was literally well below his own life expectancy. This was also a man who (seemingly) laid claim to a lifetime of clean living, walking the talk of his Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. If anyone should have cleanly coasted into old age, it would be Prince.

“When it came to drug and alcohol abuse, he had no tolerance, for him or his band. The man was hard,” says Dr. Greg Hall, a physician and professor at Case Western University. “When he died, I was like, ‘What is this?’”

As we now know, Prince was a closet opiate user, after a prescription for hip pain went off the rails. So Prince died younger than expected, but that just makes him a statistical anomaly. Right? Not so fast. Hall was jarred by Prince’s early passing, and struck with the sense that it was more than a fluke.

He embarked on a research project, looking at the lives and deaths of Rolling Stone’s Top 100 artists (a list that actually includes 252 people). Hall wanted to determine if there is credence to our anecdotal impression of rockers—do they really die younger than the rest of us?

Overwhelmingly, Hall’s conclusion was that “famous musician” is a terribly risky profession. Factoring in birth years and an average life expectancy of 76, only 44 people should have been dead on the Rolling Stone list. Instead it was 82, nearly twice that number. And among those who died, the life expectancy was 49—less than the average resident of Afghanistan.

When you start parsing out how the rockers died, things get even more interesting. Start with homicides—six of the 82 deaths were murder, an astoundingly high number compared to the public at large. John Lennon and Tupac and Sam Cooke, oh my. And plane crashes? For most of us, the chances of plane death are roughly 1 in 5 million. For these folks, that number ratchets right up to 1 in 84 (We miss you, Buddy!)

Unsurprisingly, many of the deaths are linked to drugs and alcohol. Pressures of fame paired with artistic temperament are a potent cocktail; many of these deaths played to type. You’ve got a vast swath of overdoses, substance-driven suicides, drunken car (and of course motorcycle) accidents, even plain old liver disease at a rate three times higher than the rest of us.

Hall traveled far down the path of cause and effect, researching everything from self-determination theory to the work of psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig (who studied the links between genius, madness and mortality). But for an actionable takeaway, Hall hopes his research will highlight the tragic potential for opiate abuse.

“In many ways my research shows just how different [rock stars] are from the rest of us,” he says. “But in a larger sense, if it could happen to Prince, it could happen to you.”

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