Research has long linked socioeconomic factors such as income and education with better health and longevity. But no one has been sure whether this connection occurred because of greater access to resources or the simple glow of high social status relative to others. Scholars have dubbed the latter "relative deprivation."
Wanting to delve deep into this issue, a team of investigators at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health led by Dr. Bruce Link studied Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, Emmy Award winners and former presidents and vice presidents, comparing each to nominated losers in the same competition or election. The result: There were no consistent advantages for winners. Sometimes the link between winning and longevity was positive. But sometimes it was negative and sometimes it was even nonexistent.
Even so, the specifics revealed a lot, suggesting that access to resources and opportunity are more important than relative status. The findings have been published online in the American Sociological Review. In a press release, Link and his associates revealed the following effects of winning vs. losing in the three groups:
-- Emmy-winning actors enjoyed 2.7 more years of life than nominees who did not take home the trophy. Though Emmy-winning screenwriters were, mysteriously, at a 3-year disadvantage.
-- Baseball Hall of Famers garnered no advantage in longevity over non-inducted nominees.
-- Presidents and vice presidents lose, on average, 5.3 years from their lives compared to the opponents they beat. While some of this is due to the impact of assassination, the disadvantage lingers even when assassination is removed from the equation.
"The relative deprivation theory would predict that losers would consistently be at a disadvantage for health and longevity compared to winners, but this is not what we see," Link said in a press release.
A more likely explanation, he notes, is that the advantages and disadvantages of winning rely heavily on the bundle of opportunities and stresses they bring. For example, taking home an Emmy often brings about new career opportunities that might not have been otherwise open to the winners. (The study quotes actor John Larroquette saying "There's no doubt that having an Emmy preceeds you through the door.") On the other hand, Baseball Hall of Fame induction occurs after playing careers are over and therefore has little bearing on career opportunities and earnings.
As for presidential and vice presidential candidates, life circumstances do change for members of this elite club, but winning also reaps significant risks: assassination threats and extreme stress from two of the world's most demanding jobs. The 15 men who led our country during the 20th century but died by the year 2008 lived an average of 1.9 years less than the average American male of the same age.
"Our findings provide an important correction to an overemphasis on relative deprivation as an explanation of health inequalities," Link said. "Relative deprivation likely plays some role in health inequalities, but it is not as important as the life circumstances and opportunities that result from one's socioeconomic position."
Meanwhile, this wasn't the first time this issue has been researched. Other previous studies found that actors who have won Oscars live almost four years longer than those who haven't won an Academy Award.
Another analysis of 524 nominees for the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 1950 revealed that the group's 135 winners lived about two years longer than the competitors who came up short.
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