September 8, 2006
McGill researchers debunk Oscar-winner 'longevity bonus'
Previous study gave Academy Award winners unfair statistical advantage
Do better actors live longer? Not any more. In an article in The Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001, researchers reported that Oscar-winning actors lived an average of nearly four years longer than their less successful peers. Now, writing in the same journal, McGill University researchers say an unfair statistical advantage in that study skewed the "longevity bonus" awarded the award winners, and that it's really closer to a statistically negligible single year.
"On the one hand, this is good news for statistical accuracy... on the other, it may shatter some people's illusions about fame and immortality," observed Prof. James Hanley of McGill's Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, who led the statistical reanalysis.
The 2001 report compared the survival rates of 235 Oscar-winning actors, 527 nominees who never won and 887 performers who were never nominated. In the analysis that determined the 3.9-year advantage, actors were classified as "winners" from birth rather than from the time they won. In their reanalysis, Hanley and Biostatistics graduate students Marie-Pierre Sylvestre and Ella Huszti say that gave them what's called an "immortal time" bias — a subtle distinction that often throws off conclusions in medical studies.
For instance, George Burns, who won an Oscar at 80, lived to be 100. Richard Burton was nominated seven times but never won and died at 59. The 40 years by which Burns outlived Burton can't all be credited to Burns winning the Oscar at 80. "By comparing the life expectancy of the winners from the moment they win with others alive at that age, you level the playing field," Hanley explained. "The results are not as, shall we say, dramatic, but they're more accurate."
In the McGill reanalysis, the estimate of the longevity difference is approximately one year. "Even if we take the best-case scenario, given the one-year margin of error either way," explained Hanley, "we still have to wonder how much of it is a question of Oscars going to healthier performers whose lifestyles enhance their longevity in any case."
Lisa Van Dusen
McGill University Relations