Monday, April 22, 2013

Do athletes have shorter lifespans?

According to this article in Pacific Standard magazine, athletes have lower lifespans than those in other occupations.

The article cites a recent academic study (.pdf) that looked at 1,000 consecutive obituaries in the New York Times.  That study 

" ...found the youngest average age of death was among athletes (77.4 years), performers (77.1 years), and non-performers who worked in creative fields, such as authors, composers, and artists (78.5 years). The oldest average age of death was found among people famous for their work in politics (82.1 years), business (83.3 years), and the military (84.7 years)."

The authors of the study say,

"... our data raise the intriguing speculation that young people contemplating certain careers (e.g. performing arts and professional sports) may be faced, consciously or otherwise, with a faustian choice: namely, 1. to maximize their career potential and  competitiveness even though the required psychological and physical costs may be expected to shorten their longevity, or 2. to fall short of their career potential so as to balance their lives and permit a normal lifespan."

But: isn't there a selective sampling problem here?

To appear in a New York Times obituary, you have to be relatively famous, or, at least, have passed a certain standard of fame or accomplishment in your chosen field.

If your chosen field is athletics, you reach that threshold early in your life -- in your 30s, say.  Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey Jr., Bjorn Borg.  If your field is business, you probably have to reach the level of CEO to make the Times.  The median age of a CEO in the S&P 500 is mid-50s ... so the median age for an *accomplished* CEO is probably around 60. 

Same for politics: the median age of a US senator is almost 62 years.  For a US congressman, the mean is around 57.

So, of course looking at obituaries will make you think there's a difference!  Your sample includes athletes who died at 40, but not politicians who died at 40.  Politicians who died at 40 either haven't become famous yet -- or, more likely, haven't even become politicians yet!

And, quickly checking out the US mortality table ... a 35-year-old male is expected to live to about 77.5.  A 60-year-old male is expected to live to about 80.9.

Seems about right.


If you want a two-line analogy, try this: 

No US president has ever died before the age of 35.  That doesn't mean that if you want to make sure you don't die in childhood, you should become a US president.

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At Tuesday, April 23, 2013 9:17:00 AM, Blogger ff said...

coincidentally, I was watching some statistical show yesterday that asked the question about who has the highest average life expectancy and the choices were football players, baseball players, and average US male. According to them, its the football player. With all the news coming out on football and its effects, I thought there is no way that can be true. There has to be some selection bias they are including in the sample or they are looking at wrong stats.


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