If you hope to live a long time, your two best strategies are to be really healthy and really rich.
That’s the conventional wisdom and the statistics seem to back it up. But a surprising new study that links the longevity of Olympic athletes to their socioeconomic status offers a more nuanced picture of why elite athletes tend to outlive the rest of us. It’s not just about muscles and money – it’s also about the stress of competition, not only in sport, but in life.
Adriaan Kalwij, an economist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, combed through the records of every Dutch athlete who competed in the Summer and Winter Games between 1896 and 1964, excluding more recent years because most of those athletes are still alive. Using their birth dates, death dates and stated occupation, he was able to explore how socioeconomic status (SES) influenced their longevity.
The results, published in PLOS One in December, confirmed that the 934 Olympians outlived their age-matched Dutch peers by a few years, as other studies of elite athletes have previously found. They also found that the influence of SES has steadily increased over the past century.
In the oldest cohort of athletes, born between 1852 and 1899, SES had no significant effect on longevity. In a sense, Kalwij says, this is what you might expect of Olympians: “excellent innate health could make them ‘immune’ to a SES-lifespan gradient.”
But in the next cohort of athletes, born between 1900 and 1919, a gradient emerges. Those classed as low SES, such as unskilled labourers, lived on average five years less than medium (teachers, office workers) and high (lawyers, doctors) SES athletes.
And in the most recent cohort, born between 1920 and 1947, an even wider gap emerges: High SES athletes lived five years longer than medium SES athletes, who in turn lived six years longer than low SES athletes – a stunning difference of 11 years between the top and bottom group, despite their healthy youth.
What’s most surprising about this trend is that it’s going the wrong way. You’d expect that the strengthening of social programs such as universal health care and state pensions over the past half-century would have reduced the health penalty incurred by poverty. Instead, Kalwij’s results join a large body of data across numerous countries, including Canada, suggesting that the influence of social class on lifespan has been growing since the 1950s.
While there are numerous factors that could contribute to an SES-health gradient, including access to health care and behaviours such as smoking and drinking, Kalwij believes that psychological stress may play a role.
In a previous study of U.S. Olympians, he found that gold medalists outlived silver medalists by a few years – but bronze medalists, who tend to be happy they squeaked onto the podium, also outlived silver medalists, typically the least happy of medalists. That suggests that it’s not riches and fame that directly extend life. Instead, it’s something about how you perceive the outcome.
Kalwij’s theory is plausible, says Edmund Acevedo, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies stress and health. The release of stress hormones after a perceived negative outcome can affect the cardiovascular system, immune function and other physical systems, and can also change behaviour for the worse by affecting sleep patterns and diet, Acevedo says.
These factors don’t just affect Olympians. “Competition is embedded in our daily lives, [with] virtually no escape possible” Kalwij says, from college admissions to job promotions to dating. Compared to a century ago, each of us has more opportunities to succeed, but also more opportunities to fail, he says. These stressors accumulate over time, and low SES may be associated with a subjective sense of having “lost” more micro-competitions that you’ve won.
It’s not all about being super-rich and super-healthy, in other words. It’s not even about winning – it’s about how gracefully you accept the inevitable losses, even in an Olympic final.
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.
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