The price of fame: pop stars are more likely to die young

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Fame may be the spur that drives young rock bands to success – but it can also be a killer when it finally arrives.

From Elvis to Tupac, a life at the top of the popular music pantheon, devoutly sought after by millions of youngsters, comes with the kind of risks that would make most mothers pale.

The toll of high-octane lifestyles pursued on a tide of popular acclaim is charted in research published today showing successful rock and pop stars are twice as likely as the rest of us to die an early death.

Alcohol, drugs, accidents and violence are the chief perils but as rock stars age, cancer and heart disease pose an increasing threat to abused bodies and shrivelled livers. The risk is highest in the five years after they first achieve fame, the researchers say. The findings are based on more than 1,000 North American and European musicians who shot to fame over the past 50 years. All of them featured in the All Time Top 1,000 Albums, selected in 2000.

The researchers from the University of Liverpool say that while the deaths of individual stars such as Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain have been endlessly debated, no overall assessment of the risks has been made.

In all, 100 of the stars died between 1956 and 2005. The average age of death was 42 for the North American stars and 35 for the European ones. Drugs and alcohol contributed to at least two-thirds of the deaths.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel – at least for European stars. Their risk of dying returned to the same level as the general population 25 years after they achieved fame – provided they survived that long. North American stars however, continued to suffer higher death rates.

Professors Mark Bellis and John Ashton, public health specialists at Liverpool John Moores University, say in on-line edition of The Journal of Epidemiology that the music business needs to take the risks of success more seriously – not only to protect the health of their stars but also the legions of fans for whom they set an example.

"Pop stars can suffer high levels of stress in environments where alcohol and drugs are widely available, leading to health-damaging risk behaviour. However, their behaviour can also influence would-be stars and devoted fans. Collaborations between health and music industries should focus on improving both pop stars' health and their image as role models to wider populations," they say.

One in 10 children in the UK aspires to become a pop star, the authors said, confirmed by the numbers applying to take part in shows like X Factor.

They added: "Increasingly, communication of health-promoting messages to young people is being undertaken by pop stars and other celebrity figures.

"However, more needs to be learnt about how such interventions actually affect young people's behaviour ... Where popstars' behaviour remains typified by risk-taking and substance use, it is unlikely that young people will see any positive health messages they champion as credible."

Dying before they get old

* Buddy Holly

The pioneer of rock'n'roll was just 23 years old when the plane he was travelling in, along with fellow performers Ritchie Valens and J P Richardson, crashed near Minnesota in 1959. He was one of the first truly global music stars to die early.

* Janis Joplin

Joplin rose to fame as lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company. She became a giant of 1960s rock music before dying of a heroin overdose in 1970. Her last recording was a birthday song for John Lennon, who received it by post the day after she died.

* Sid Vicious

The Sex Pistols frontman met his end, after an already turbulent career, just one day after being released on bail for the suspected murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Vicious overdosed on heroine supplied by his mother at a New York party in 1979.

* Tupac Shakur

The man who epitomised US gang culture met his end in a drive-by shooting after leaving a Las Vegas casino in September 1996. Conspiracies surrounding his death still abound. Six months later Tupac Shakur's rival The Notorious BIG was also gunned down.