Going for the gold: Olympic medalists live longer than the rest of us

The Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) is always high in entertainment value, containing as it does a number of off-kilter papers that still manage to inform.  The 2012 issue is marked by papers like, Why Rudolph’s nose is red and The tooth fairy and malpractice.  One of the more straightforward pieces, which still managed to be fairly entertaining though it dealt directly with mortality, was a study looking at longevity in former Olympic games medallists.

Researchers from Australia, the United States, and the Netherlands compared the lifespan of 15,000 medalists from nine difference countries (including among others, the United States, Russia, Norway, and Germany) to the lifespan of average folks of the same age and gender from the same countries.

What they found was that on average Olympic medalists lived nearly three years longer than the average person.  And that the color of the medal (gold, silver, or bronze) didn’t didn’t further effect survival.  In other words, gold medalists – despite the added glory – didn’t live any longer than either the silver or bronze medalists.  What did seem to make a distinction among medalists, however, was the type of sport a medal was won in.  Events with an endurance component were linked to a greater survival advantage than power events, like weight lifting.   Though, medaling in power events was still linked to boosted longevity compared to the average person in a population, even though the advantage was fairly slight.

The lifespan distinction between endurance and power events certainly suggests that cardiovascular fitness and regular endurance activity is a likely reason that Olympians live longer than most people. And there are certainly good data showing that exercise boosts longevity overall.

Of course, Olympians, and especially medallists, are far from normal people when it comes to fitness and physiology, so a study like this may be more fun than informing, especially because it didn’t set out to answer why the distinctions exist.  Perhaps the authors are saving that for Christmas 2013.

Beyond issues of fitness and activity level, any number of other factors could also account for medalists living longer.  There’s genetics.  There’s financial standing, with successful athletes able to earn more money than they otherwise might and therefore afford better medical care and the time to look after their health.  And there’s simply a broader focus on overall healthy living that many Olympians adhere to.

Whatever it is, Olympians seems to, once again, embody an ideal to strive for.  And perhaps that’s something to keep in mind as we hop from holiday party to holiday party, and maybe why the BMJ published it in the first place.

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