When Julianne Moore won Best Actress at the Oscars last night, she mentioned in her speech some study she’d read about that said Oscar winners tend to live longer than their non-Oscar-winning peers. “I read an article that said winning an Oscar could lead to living five years longer,” she said. “If that’s true, I’d really like to thank the Academy, because my husband is younger than me.”
It made for a charming acceptance speech, and surely Moore was mostly joking; still, I was curious about that finding, so I looked up the study she’s referencing. It’s a 2001 paper in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, lead authored by Don Redelmeier, a senior scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto. Redelmeier and his team first gathered the life spans of all the actors and actresses who had ever been nominated for Academy Awards (at that time, there were 1,649 of them). They then compared the winners and non-winners to a third, never-nominated control group — actors of the same sex who’d appeared in the same films as their nominated peers, but had been passed over for an Oscar nod. Overall, they reported that Oscar winners tended to live about 3.9 years longer in comparison to the non-winning groups of actors; winners lived till about 80, whereas both the non-nominated and non-winning actors died at about 76, on average.
Their explanation was that a person’s social status tends to be a good indicator of his or her health. “The association of high status with increased longevity that prevails in the public also extends to celebrities, contributes to a large survival advantage, and is partially explained by factors related to success,” they conclude in the study’s abstract.
Okay, so far, sounds like another reason to be envious of beautiful and award-winning movie stars. But five years later, a separate research team led by Marie-Pierre Sylvestre at McGill University published a paper, also in the Annals of Internal Medicine, investigating that 2001 finding. Sylvestre and her team argue that if we’re trying to gauge the life-extending powers of winning an Oscar, then it doesn’t make any sense to include the winners’ pre-Oscar years when tallying up longevity. They wrote:
To estimate the longevity benefits of winning an Oscar, the comparison should begin at the time that each performer first wins, and the “remaining longevity” contest should only include those alive at the same age as the winner was when he or she won. A winner may legitimately be included in comparisons … before winning, but only as a nonwinner.
After re-analyzing the data used in the 2001 paper this way, Sylvestre found that Oscar winners did still maintain a slight longevity advantage over their non-winning peers — about a year — but that the difference wasn’t statistically significant. It’s a reminder to be suspicious of study results that seem “too extreme to be true,” Sylvestre and her team conclude. So — surprise? — winning an Oscar doesn’t seem to have some magical protective impact on an actor’s subsequent life span, though it would be nice to be given a few extra years of someone as talented and likable as Moore.