Sex, drugs and early death: research reveals musicians living fast really do die younger

New research reveals what followers of the notorious '27 club' have known for years - that a fast-living rock 'n' roll lifestyle results in premature death

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The Independent Culture

Those yearning to live the Rock and Roll lifestyle should take note; musicians living fast really do die younger.

Studies by the Centre for Public Health found that in the past 50 years, musicians were more likely to die prematurely than the wider population.

The lavish lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll may be hugely appealing but can result in the tragedy of premature deaths with artists such as Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston.

Among the surprise revelations, the report “Dying to be famous” showed solo performers are twice as likely to die as their counterparts in bands. It also revealed that a third of those who died young and been subjected to abuse in childhood.

Professor Mark Bellis, at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, decided to look behind the tragic tales from Tupac to Sid Vicious to examine the relationship between fame and premature mortality.

“We wanted to examine the risks associated with being a rock star, and whether it was higher than other areas,” Professor Bellis said.

After studying 1,489 famous musicians in North America and Europe who became celebrities in the 50 years to 2006, he said that music stars had “reduced survival compared to the general population”.

The results, which were published in the online journal BMJ Open, found that 5.4 per cent of those in bands died prematurely in the UK, while the figure rose to 9.8 per cent among solo musicians.  Those percentages both doubled in the US. 

The professor said: “This culture exposes people to a certain lifestyle, and on the other hand certain people are more drawn towards it. The opportunities are magnified”

The obsession with dead musicians is nothing new. There is even the so called “27 Club” where musicians including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and more recently Winehouse, all died at the age of 27 often through substance abuse. However, the report found that an elevated risk at that age was “unsubstantiated”.

A third of the stars that died had adverse childhood experience, which the report termed as physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Others included living with a chronically depressed, suicidal or mentally ill person or a substance abuser or coming from a broken home.

The career “may be attractive to those escaping an unhappy childhood, but it may also provide the resource to feed a pre-disposition to unhealthy and risky behaviour,” Professor Bellis said.

Four in five of the dead stars who suffered several forms of abuse in their childhood died of substance misuse or violence-related causes. “We found that those going into the industry may have a variety of insecurities and they may need protecting.”

“You get a bigger concentration of adverse childhood experience in the poorer areas,” he said. “People may see music as a way out. Many may think millions of pounds will undo the trauma. That doesn’t seem to be the case.”

The deaths are higher in America than Europe, where the authors pointed to a different support system, such as universal healthcare, and culture. “Also the risk behaviour in the US is different, because they have access to guns,” the professor said.