“Live fast, die young” is usually associated with rappers and rock stars, but it may describe the lives of the precociously successful in diverse fields: Politicians, actors, and scholars who reach career peaks early in their lives may be at risk for premature death. In 2001, Stewart McCann, a professor of psychology at the University College of Cape Breton in Canada, devised what he calls the “precocity-longevity hypothesis”: That people who reach career peaks at a younger age tend to have shorter lives. The idea first occurred to McCann when he was researching American presidents and noticed a surprising pattern: The men who became president earlier seemed to die earlier, too. He decided to look into this trend more systematically, and designed a series of studies looking at the relationship between age at death and age at peak success in different fields.
McCann looked at a total of 1,026 people, comprising 23 samples. The first study focused on national political leaders, for example, American and French presidents, and Canadian, British, New Zealand, and Australian prime ministers, who died of natural causes; Roman Catholic popes; male British monarchs; associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, etc... He compared the age at which they first achieved their leadership position to their age at death, making some attempts to control for selection biases. (For example: People entering the samples in different decades and even centuries have drastically different life expectancies.)1
McCann found that his precocity-longevity hypothesis was supported for every sample except the Australian prime ministers. For the 32 American presidents included in this study, for instance, the younger ones (those who were inaugurated before the median age of 55.7) died, on average, 7.2 years before those who were inaugurated when they were older (i.e., after the median). In the French sample, the difference was 9.2 years; for popes, it was 10.2.
In his second study, McCann extended his theory to exceptional creative achievement—looking at winners of Nobel prizes in all six categories and winners of Oscars for acting. His theory was again borne out, most dramatically for Peace Prize recipients: Those who won after the median age could tack on an extra 13.5 years to their lifetimes.
In a third study, he looked at all the participants at a single event attended only by distinguished men: The signing of the Declaration of Independence. Of the 56 signers, the average age was 44.8; the average age at death was 66.4, but those who were above the median on July 4, 1776, lived an average of 7.7 years longer than those who were below it.
This study wasn’t designed to explain the possible link between early achievement and premature death, but McCann has a couple ideas. He thinks the most likely culprit is stress: “It is conceivable that stresses resulting from serving in a high-level capacity at an early age may promote premature declines that culminate in earlier death,” he writes. Or it may be that the same factors driving success also contribute to early decline: People who become successful early in life tend to have competitive, achievement-oriented “Type A” personalities (an actual psychological “Type,” apparently)—great for getting ahead, but not as great for health.
Another theory suggests that people who achieve success at a young age, who’ve had less time to develop a secure sense of identity, may be more likely to resort to self-destructive behaviors to cope with fame and media attention. This was put forward by Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger, in a paper that found that the precocity-longevity hypothesis also applies to early twentieth-century Major League Baseball players—and might be more plausible for baseball players and actors than, say, Nobel prize-winning physicists or economists. Another possibility is that people who accomplish their life-long goal early have less motivation to carry on; having a sense of purpose has been linked to longevity.
Good news for slackers and late-bloomers everywhere.
Other biases: People who achieve at a later age enter the sample at a later age, coming in with fewer years to die and a greater life expectancy. In one version of this study, McCann excluded everyone who reached their career peak before anyone else in the sample died.
An earlier version of this article said the University College of Cape Breton is in Australia.