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Sports Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

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Every year, in its last issue, Sports Illustrated says farewell to the famous athletes who have died during the year. As I was browsing through this year's "The Farewells" in the Dec. 26th issue, I was struck by the following realization: They're too young to die!

People are supposed to die when they're old, not when they're still in their prime. Yet in 2011 so many of these athletes seem to have been snuffed out prematurely. Or were they?

Was I unduly influenced by reading the obituaries of five famous athletes who died in their 40s, four in their 30s, and four in their 20s? When they were born, they had life expectancies of just over 70 years. Today, life expectancy for newborns is 78. They shouldn't die so young.

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Moreover, when I read the news obituaries every day in the New York Times, as is my wont, I immediately focus on the headlines, which disclose the ages of the deceased. Those ages seem to be to me more "normal," that is, they are the ages of "old" people, not those in the 20s or 30s or 40s. Indeed, today's online Times notes the deaths of a 94-year-old judge and an 86-year-old singer. I can live with those, so to speak. (Though for some of us, 86 doesn't seem that old anymore.)

So, in the spirit of one who has too much time on his hands, I set to work to test a hypothesis based on my reaction to the Sports Illustrated article: Athletes die younger than non-athletes.

This, of course, is a heretical notion. We all know that exercise and sports are good for soul and body. Well, testing benefits to the soul is a more difficult experiment than I can devise. But perhaps I can discern, through an elementary data analysis, whether famous athletes' bodies are at greater risk than those of us more sedentary types.

So I went through the Sports Illustrated list of farewells and eliminated the several non-athletes -- agents, writers and such. I did include coaches, because most coaches were active athletes in their previous lives. I was left with 60 famous athletes who died in 2011. And their ages. Their average age was calculated to be 62.5 years (median age: 65.0).

As I suspected, they were young. But how young? Well, for starters, much younger than life expectancy is now, and even much younger than their life expectancy was when they were born. But how much younger than, say, a similar-size cohort of other people? Say, famous non-athletes.

For this calculation, I went on January 3 to the online Times, which, had a list of just over 60 news obituaries -- those of people famous enough for the Times to have written an article about them when they died. The sample I used started with deaths on Dec. 13, 2011, and continued through this afternoon. After culling out several athletes on the list, I was left, coincidentally, with 60 people -- or, rather, former people.

The result? An average age at death for famous non-athletes of 81.3 years (median age: 82.0).

Not satisfied with just this one list, I found another compilation in the Times of famous people who died during the entire year 2011. After weeding out the athletes, I was left with 125 obituaries. The results: an identical average age of 81.3 years (median age: 84).

This is about 17 to 19 years longer than the athletes' age of death, depending on whether one uses average or median as the measure. Let's call it 18.

The conclusion?

Famous non-athletes live almost two decades longer than famous athletes.

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Almost two decades! That's mind-boggling. A small difference would be explainable as within the margin of error. But two decades? There must be some statistical significance.

The comparison is even more startling when comparing deaths by decades of their lives, as shown in the chart. In the four decades of their lives, from their 20s through their 50s, a total of 27 athletes died, compared with only two non-athletes. Or at the other end of the mortality spectrum, only two athletes survived until their 90s, compared with 17 non-athletes.

I titled this piece facetiously, or so I thought at the start. But maybe it isn't facetious. Perhaps sports at its highest level does come at a price. We now know the impact that contact sports have on hips, knees, shoulders, the back, and other parts of the body, and we also have recently been made aware of the surprisingly high rate of concussions in football and hockey. It's conceivable that there are yet further insults to the system that are the cost of becoming a world-class athlete. Years and years of extended practice and high-level competition may do damage to the body that diminish the famous athlete's lifespan.

In any event, my fingers are getting pretty exhausted from all this typing, so I've decided to stop now before I press my longevity luck.

Appendix

60 Famous-Athlete Deaths 2011 (Sports Illustrated, Dec. 26, 2011)

Greg Halman, 24, baseball
Rick Rypien, 27, hockey
Derek Boogaard, 28, hockey
Jeret Peterson, 29, skiing
Dan Wheldon, 33, racecar driver
Robert Traylor, 34, basketball
Wade Belak, 35, hockey
Margo Dydek, 37, basketball
Orlando Brown, 40, football
Chester McGlockton, 42, football
Hideki Irabu, 42, baseball
Lorenzo Charles, 47, basketball
Armen Gilliam, 47, basketball
Dave Duerson, 50, football
Kent Hull, 50, football
Ron Springs, 54, football
Seve Ballesteros, 54, golf
Drew Hill, 54, football
Charlie Lea, 54, baseball
Mike Mitchell, 55, basketball
Lee Roy Selmon, 56, football
Socrates, 57, soccer
Grete Waitz, 57, marathon
Randy Savage, 58, baseball
Nikolai Andrianov, 58, gymnastics
Mike Flanagan, 59, baseball
Rick Martin, 59, hockey
Larry Finch, 60, basketball
Bob Forsch, 61, baseball
Paul Splittorff, 64, baseball
Bubba Smith, 66, football
Joe Frazier, 67, boxing
Gale Gillingham, 67, football
John Mackey, 69, football
Walt Hazzard, 69, basketball
Vasili Alexeyev, 69, weightlifting
Peter Gent, 69, football
Woodie Fryman, 70, baseball
Jim Northrup, 71, baseball
Matty Alou, 72, baseball
Dave Gavitt, 73, basketball
Harmon Killebrew, 74, baseball
Dave Hill, 74, golf
Cookie Gilchrist, 75, football
Don Chandler, 76, football
Wes Covington, 79, baseball
Ollie Matson, 80, football
Ryne Duren, 81, baseball
John Henry Johnson, 81, football
Al Davis, 82, football
Dick Williams, 82, baseball
Chuck Tanner, 82, baseball
Ed Macauley, 83, basketball
Duke Snider, 84, baseball
Joe Perry, 84, football
Andy Robustelli, 85, football
Joe Steffy, 85, football
Pete Pihos, 87, football
Marty Marion, 93, baseball
Jack LaLanne, 96, bodybuilder

60 Famous-Non-Athlete Deaths (Dec. 13, 2011 to mid-afternoon, Jan. 2, 2012 from the New York times online, 1/2/12)

James Ramseur, Wounded in '84 Subway Shooting, Dies at 45
Sean Collins, Who Used Science to Help Surfers, Dies at 59
Yoshimitsu Morita, Filmmaker Acclaimed for Social Satires, Dies at 61
Christopher Hitchens, Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, Dies at 62
Kim Geun-tae, South Korean Democracy Activist, Dies at 64
Adrienne Cooper, Yiddish Singer, Dies at 65
Paula E. Hyman, Who Sought Rights for Women in Judaism, Dies at 65
Ralph MacDonald, Pop Percussionist, Dies at 67
John Lawrence, Plaintiff in Gay Rights Case, Dies at 68
Lynn Samuels, a Brash Radio Talker, Dies at 69
Kim Jong-il, 69, Dictator Who Turned North Korea Into a Nuclear State, Dies
Cesária Évora, Singer From Cape Verde, Dies at 70
Sean Bonniwell, Singer in the Music Machine, Dies at 71
Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Mexican Character Actor, Dies at 71
Robert Morvillo, Legal Pioneer, Dies at 73
Billie Jo Spears, Country Singer, Dies at 73
Satyadev Dubey, Playwright Who Modernized Hindi Theater, Dies at 75
Vaclav Havel, Former Czech President, Dies at 75
Joseph Farrell, Who Used Market Research to Shape Films, Dies at 76
Warren Hellman, 77, Investor Who Loved Bluegrass, Dies
Evelyn Handler Dies at 78; Led Two Universities
Simms Taback, Author of Wry Children's Books, Dies at 79
Robert Ader, Who Linked Stress and Illness, Dies at 79
Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff, Environmental Advocate, Dies at 81
Robert Easton, Hollywood's Henry Higgins, Dies at 81
Wolfgang Oehme, a Free-Form Landscape Architect, Dies at 81
Henry E. Catto Jr., Who Served 4 Presidents, Dies at 81
Bob Brookmeyer, Jazz Musician and Educator, Dies at 81
Edie Stevenson Dies at 81; Wrote 'Let's Get Mikey' Ad
Barbara Lea, Cabaret Singer, Dies at 82
Howard Halpern, Therapist and Self-Help Author, Dies at 82
Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83
Gene Summers, Modernist Architect, Dies at 83
Erica Wilson Dies at 83; Led a Rebirth of Needleworking
Kiro Gligorov, Ex-Leader of Macedonia, Dies at 94
John Chamberlain, Who Wrested Rough Magic From Scrap Metal, Dies at 84
Yaffa Yarkoni, Who Sang for Israeli Soldiers, Dies at 86
Paul-Emile Deiber, Actor Who Became an Opera Director, Dies at 86
Doe Avedon, Fashion Model and Actress, Dies at 86
Russell Hoban, 'Frances' Author, Dies at 86
Andrew Geller, Modernist Architect, Is Dead at 87
Sam Rivers, Jazz Artist of Loft Scene, Dies at 88
Don Sharp Dies at 89; Director Who Revived Hammer Horror Film Company
Jacob Goldman, Founder of Xerox Lab, Dies at 90
Dan Frazer, Fretful Supervisor on 'Kojak,' Dies at 90
Stephen Schlossberg, Official of U.A.W. and Labor Dept., Dies at 90
Pupi Campo, Cuban Bandleader and 'the Rumba Maestro,' Dies at 91
Henry Lafont, Pilot, Dies at 91; Fought in Battle of Britain
Patrick V. Murphy, Police Leader Who Reformed New York Force, Dies at 91
Anthony Amato, Founder of Amato Opera, Is Dead at 91
Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Expert on Ancient Script, Dies at 93
Robert L. Carter, an Architect of School Desegregation, Dies at 94
Holden Withington, Last Living B-52 Designer, Dies at 94
Bonnie Prudden, 97, Dies; Promoted Fitness for TV Generation
Norman Krim, Who Championed the Transistor, Dies at 98
Joe Simon, a Creator of Captain America, Is Dead at 98
George Whitman, Paris Bookseller and Cultural Beacon, Is Dead at 98
Boris Chertok, Engineer With Russian Space Program, Dies at 99
Robert Lawrence Balzer, Wine Writer, Dies at 99
Eva Zeisel, Ceramic Artist and Designer, Dies at 105

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