Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Olympians Live Longer

By Stephen Luntz

Olympic medallists lead longer lives than their countrymen, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.

While the conclusion is hardly surprising, the study of more than 15,000 medallists reveals some interesting variations as to who has benefited the most.

Prof Philip Clarke of the University of Melbourne’s School of Population Health found that, on average, medallists from the Olympic powerhouses lived 2.8 years longer than their compatriots. The colour of their medal appeared to make no difference, undermining the theory that the wealth and fame associated with victory represents an important part of the life extension.

On the other hand, analysis of a subgroup of winners suggests that endurance athletes are likely to live longer than those who won medals for sports that require short bursts of energy, such as weightlifting.

When broken down by nationality, Russian medallists since 1950 have had a much greater advantage over their compatriots than those from western nations. “It’s not that Russian medallists are living longer, but that life expectancy for the general population is 10 years shorter,” Clarke says.

Canadian Olympians gained the next most, possibly suggesting a benefit in cold climates, but Clarke says this was not apparent across the sample as a whole.

If the use of performance-enhancing drugs has had a negative effect it has not shown up in the population samples that Clarke investigated.

The study examined reports that provide the birth and death dates for summer and winter Olympic medallists. These were compared with national population data for people of a similar age. As such it is not clear whether the benefits were a result of exercise alone or if medallists gain some extra benefit beyond ordinary athletes.

“From a general message point of view most of us can’t aspire to be Olympic medallists,” says Clarke, “but we can engage in regular exercise. This has been shown to decrease the risk of big killers like Type 2 diabetes.”