Successful solo rock/pop stars are around twice as likely to die early as those in equally famous bands, indicates fascinating research you can read before you over-indulge on New Year's Eve. Though you could have read this same paper on New Year's Eve in 2007, in a different journal, just covering a slightly shorter period. Maybe researchers had a 2012 publish or perish deadline. 

This retrospective cohort study of rock and pop star mortality covered the early days of rock and roll (1956) to 2009 and included 1,489 rock and pop stars who reached fame in that period, everyone from Elvis and Johnny Cash to Snow Patrol and The Killers. Their achievements were determined from international polls and top 40 chart successes, while details of their personal lives/childhoods were drawn from a range of music and official websites, published biographies, and anthologies.

During the 50 year period covered, 137 (9.2%) famous rock/pop stars died. The average age of death was 45 for North American stars and 39 for those from Europe. That gap in life expectancy between rock and pop stars and the general population widened consistently until 25 years after fame had been achieved, after which death rates began to approach those of the general population — but only for European stars. Solo performers were around twice as likely to die early as those in a band, irrespective of whether they were European (9.8% vs 5.4%) or North American (22.8% vs 10.2%).

The peer support offered by band-mates may be protective, suggest the authors in their BMJ Open article, which means BMJ is not the only publication in the family open to Christmas season spoofs.

While gender and the age at which fame was reached did not influence life expectancy, ethnicity did, with those from non-white backgrounds more likely to die early. And the chances of survival increased among those achieving fame after 1980. Nearly half of those who died as a result of drugs, alcohol, or violence had at least one unfavorable factor in their childhoods, compared with one in four of those dying of other causes.  Those who died of drug and alcohol problems were more likely to have had a difficult or abusive childhood than those dying of other causes, the findings showed. 

These factors, referred to as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs for short, included physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; living with a chronically depressed, suicidal, mentally or physically ill person; living with a substance abuser; having a close relative in prison; and coming from a broken home or one in which domestic violence featured. 

Four out of five dead stars with more than one unfavorable childhood factor died from substance misuse or violence-related causes.

Basically, fame and money does not buy happiness, it just provides the resources to feed a predisposition to unhealthy/risky behaviors, say the authors.

"Pop/rock stars are among the most common role models for children, and surveys suggest that growing numbers aspire to pop stardom," they write. "A proliferation of TV talent shows and new opportunities created by the internet can make this dream appear more achievable than ever."

But they caution: "It is important they [children] recognise that substance use and risk taking may be rooted in childhood adversity rather than seeing them as symbols of success."

Happy New Year, BMJ. Thanks for a great 2012.

Citation: Mark A Bellis, Karen Hughes, Olivia Sharples, Tom Hennell, Katherine A Hardcastle, 'Dying to be famous: retrospective cohort study of rock and pop star mortality and its association with adverse childhood experiences', BMJ Open 2012;2:e002089 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-002089