Background: Occupational factors have long been linked to patterns of mortality.
Aim: Based on the premiss that an obituary in The New York Times (NYT) tends to imply success in one’s vocation, we used NYT obituary data to elucidate the relationships between career success, terminal disease frequency and longevity.
Design: One thousand consecutive obituaries published in NYT over the period 2009–11 were analysed in terms of gender, occupation and terminal disease, as attributed.
Methods: The frequency of disease for each occupational category was determined, and the mean age of death was calculated for each disease and occupational subgroup.
Results: Male obituaries outnumbered female (813 vs. 186), and the mean age of death was higher for males than females (80.4 ± 0.4 vs. 78.8 ± 1.1 years). Younger ages of death were evident in sports players (77.4 years), performers (77.1) and creative workers (78.5), whereas older deaths were seen in military (84.7), business (83.3) and political (82.1) workers. Younger deaths were more often associated with accidents (66.2 years), infection (68.6) and organ-specified cancers (73.0). ‘Old age’ was more often the cited cause of death for philanthropists, academics and doctors, and less often for sportsmen, performers and creatives. Cancer deaths occurred most often in performers and creatives, with lung cancer commonest among performers and least common in professionals.
Conclusion: Fame and achievement in performance-related careers may be earned at the cost of a shorter life expectancy. In such careers, smoking and other risk behaviours may be either causes or effects of success and/or early death.