Academy Award winners this Sunday may not realize it, but they have another reason to
clutch their newly-won Oscars so tightly: That 13-inch gold statuette can actually add years to their lives.
Movie stars who have won an Oscar live on average four years longer than stars nominated but not selected. Katharine Hepburn won a record four Oscars and lived to age 96. Anthony Quinn, the winner of two Academy Awards, won two and lived to 86. But Richard Burton, who was nominated seven times but never won, died at 58.
That research came from the University of Toronto, and the scientists behind it had wondered if the award’s boost to status and self-esteem were enough to increase lifespan. So they compared the length of life for those who won Best Actor or Best Actress awards with those who were nominated for the prize but didn’t win.
The answer was a decided yes, with a four-year life increase in longevity for those winning the prize over those nominated.1
That’s a stunning advantage, wrote Sir Michael Marmot in his book, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. It’s equivalent to wiping out the mortality rates from heart disease. Marmot was knighted in 2000 by the Queen Elizabeth for his pioneering work studying the differences in health along the socioeconomic ladder.
“Winning an Oscar is like reducing your chance of dying from a heart attack from about average to zero,” wrote Marmot. “Not bad.”
That’s not the only study connecting social status and self esteem to longevity. Nobel Prize-winning scientists lived an average of two years longer than scientists nominated but who didn’t win.2 Another famous study found that among British white-collar workers, executives and managers enjoyed a longer life span than those in mid-level management, while blue-collar workers had the shortest lives.3
It’s long been accepted that low socioeconomic status predisposes people to health problems and shortened life spans, but it was usually attributed to limited access to health care along with poor lifestyles and diets. But the recent crop of studies show something else is at work, since movie stars, distinguished scientists and white collar workers have similar access to medical care and certainly have incomes sufficient to ensure adequate diets.
And there’s a lesson for everyone.
Donald Redelmeier, MD, one of the scientists conducting the study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, says the results suggest that the enhanced self-esteem gained by winning a prestigious award exerts a powerful effect in improving health, even in those who already had many advantages in life.
“Once you’ve got a major accomplishment that nobody can take away from you, that gives you a sense of self-esteem and makes you much more resilient to all of the other stressors in life,” he said in a radio interview.4
That, in turn, could lower levels of stress hormones linked to cardiovascular disease and other health problems, as well as improved immune system function. Oscar winners, he wrote in the study, are also more likely to “preserve their image by continually avoiding disgraceful behaviors and maintaining exemplary conduct.” Low self esteem, in contrast, leads to depression, which weakens motivation to maintain good behaviors.
Obviously, few people will ever win an Oscar, but bioethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, in an email exchange I had with him a few years ago, said that the Oscar study “does at least suggest that money isn’t everything in life. Achievement and social recognition count too.”
Achieving distinction – such as earning salesperson of the year award, winning an athletic event or an important recognition for your community work – can instill a sense of lasting accomplishment and boost to self-esteem. Achievement also promotes positive thinking, another attribute strongly linked to lowered stress and the practice of protective health behaviors.
To help others, you can also use your knowledge of self-esteem’s link to health to boost other peoples’ well being as well. As Caplan said, “Parents, teachers, politicians, and the media who have the power to honor and acknowledge worth might keep this in mind.”
TAKEAWAY: While a good diet and an active lifestyle are critical underpinnings of a healthy life, social factors such as status and recognition also play an important role.
1. Redelmeier, DA, Singh, SM. 2001. Survival in Academy Award-winning actors and actresses. Annals of Internal Medicine 15; 134 (10):955-962.
2. University of Warwick (2007, January 18). Oswald A. and Rablen, M. “Mortality and Immortality.”
3. Marmot, MG, Smith GD, Stansfeld, S, et al. 1991.Health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. Lancet 337(8754):1387-93.
4. Redelmeier, DA. Interview on CBS Radio One by Mary Lou Finlay, May 14, 2001.