Want to Live Longer? Stop Climbing

A study proves that underachievers get the last word.

by Kastalia Medrano
Getty Images / Quinn Rooney

Are you, at this moment, a millennial who is attempting to achieve something? Put it down. Got take a nap.

A study in the journal Aging has found that people who do and achieve stuff early in life are likelier to die earlier than their unremarkable peers.

A trio of authors in the Netherlands and Denmark studied historically available data on Olympic athletes from 100 years ago. They found that athletes who achieved early in life earned a 17 percent increase in mortality rate for their trouble; athletes who achieved more highly than their competition scored an 11 percent uptick in mortality. These double threats - extraordinary male athletes who also peaked in the youngest age quartile — died an average of more than four and a half years earlier than those who peaked in the oldest quartile.

(Importantly: There’s no reason to believe the effect doesn’t hold true with female athletes; there just weren’t enough female Olympic athletes during the time period the authors studies to make sure, from a statistical point of view. There is, however, enough data to show that early puberty among women has a similarly inverted relationship to longevity, which is nevertheless a huge bummer.)

This is the first time any kind of trade-off between early achievement life expectancy has been found in humans. But does this disturbing pattern apply only to elite, super high-achieving athletes? Or can the broad population expect to find their longevity to correlate to wherever their particular strain of average falls on the bell curve?

“The whole idea behind this is that it’s something biological in everyone,” first author Paul L. van de Vijver told Inverse by phone. “But we used athletes because it’s the only place where we can see it. They train hard and they have a personal record of everything. But it’s not inherent to athletes only.

Are you someone who has achieved early and/or exceptionally? Congratulations, you probably shaved several years off your life.

Paul van de Vijver et al.

It’s worth considering this in the context of mankind’s continuing attempt to make its fear of death technologically actionable — after all, longevity technology is an ever-growing industry.. As tech moguls like Larry Ellison and Peter Thiel continue to fund projects that treat death as though it were a disease in want of a cure, we get closer to ending up floating about in those futuristic wheelchairs from WALL-E, eschewing all physical achievement in favor of intellectual pursuits that will not penalize us with death.

But no, really, don’t get your hopes up just yet that being a couch potato is the secret to everlasting youth. Van de Vijver said he’s involved in the work of a colleague who’s studying a similar correlation in historical composers and writers like Mozart, trying to investigate the statistical basis for the cost of early and exceptional intellectual achievement and death. They’re still trying to get the research published, and any conclusions are still a bit premature, but he suspects the data will bear out.

“If this is a real, fundamental biological process we’re talking about, I think there will be a correlation,” van de Vijver said.

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