Dead at 27: Why Highly Creative People Die Young

Young falling stars evoke powerful emotions.

Posted May 07, 2020

When poets and rock stars die young, we may attribute their tragic early loss to a pattern, such as the seemingly cursed age of 27 years. This was the lifespan of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse.

This age may be a real limit, or it may be the result of a confirmation bias, where confirming cases are collected, as in the documentary on short-lived prominent musicians (27: Gone Too Soon).

Possible factors include suicidal behavior, drug abuse, sex hormones, and the sense of career failure.

Suicide

Many premature deaths are linked to suicidal behavior. The issue is not that the individual necessarily intends to kill themselves. Yet, they take great risks unnecessarily, whether it is driving while intoxicated, taking out a boat at night in rough seas, or consuming many different recreational drugs in high doses.

While many creative people are high in risk-taking, suicide statistics shed doubt on this explanation. The median age of suicide is not 27 but 39. Young people have generally low suicide rates in comparison to older cohorts with rates being highest for those over 60.

Drug Abuse

If suicide is not a plausible explanation for tragic deaths among young creative people, it is possible that persistent drug abuse has the effect of prematurely aging their internal organs, making longevity impossible.

Being a prominent figure in popular music is not an easy career path. To begin with, many experience the pressures of failure and use recreational drugs as an escape mechanism. Then, there are even greater pressures of success and fame.

Habitual use of recreational drugs exacts a toll on the internal organs. If this pattern begins in the teenage years, it has the potential to bring on vital organ failure, and premature death within a decade.

For this reason, alcoholics who begin heavy drinking in their teens fail to reach their 30s. Many entertainers use alcohol, in addition to other drugs, to get through their day. Organ toxicity is one plausible reason for the pattern of death by 27 years.

Yet, there is variability in individual physiological responses to drugs of abuse. While deaths might well cluster at age 27, there is no obvious reason that it would not be 25 or 29.

The mid-20s is a time of physiological changes for people who are not drug addicts. For men, it is the peak time of testosterone production. This is linked to risk-taking and accidental death (1).

Sex Hormones and Creativity

Most of the extremely early deaths of entertainers are men. Young men are particularly vulnerable to accidental death and this implicates sex hormones (1). Testosterone peaks in the mid-20s and testosterone is predictive of risk-taking, accidents, and violent death.

This age is also a peak of male artistic creativity and individual accomplishment in various fields from sports to mathematics (2). The same is true of entertainment professionals.

The sexual exploits of male rock stars are legendary and their sexual magnetism draws an endless supply of enthusiastic female partners. Such excesses go along with drug abuse, irrational risk-taking, and high levels of accidental death, whether from risky driving, accidental drowning, or accidents.

Such behavior carries a price and is associated with very early deaths.

Female entertainers have no particular physiological vulnerability in the mid-20s. Yet, they are encountering the peak of physical attractiveness that challenges entertainers.

Feelings of Failure

The pressures of career success strike early because most creatives make their mark before the age of 30. This general principle is as true of scientists and mathematicians as it is of poets and musicians.

There are some exceptions, of course. Novelists may not hit their stride until their 40s and some painters and poets produce their most influential work in old age.

Even so, the three-decade cutoff looms. Those who have not achieved their ambitions by the age of 27 may feel that time is running out. Entertainers feel more intense pressure to succeed than people in more humdrum occupations thanks to the cutthroat nature of their business. Stress may reduce life expectancy.

Stress and Poor Health Behavior

Despite the fraction of entertainers who flame out tragically early, most entertainers experience old age.

On average, entertainers survive for just a few years shorter than others, according to a study of New York Times obituaries. This deficit has two likely causes.

The first is a greater incidence of smoking—based on the number of deaths to lung cancer. The other is psychological stress.

Most professional entertainers experience financial privation with spells of abject failure. Even the successful ones worry about getting pushed aside by new talent.

What It All Means

The phenomenon of dying at 27 could represent the physiological limits of a stressful life compounded by heavy drug abuse. Yet, we cannot be confident that more entertainers die at 27 than at 28, or 26. Most entertainers live far longer.

The age of 27 years may be selected because it is maximally tragic. After all, the individual has reached the acme of their talent and already climbed a mountain of success. It is a great height to fall from.

References

1 Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Behavioral factors associated with disease, injury, and death, among men: Evidence and implications for prevention. Journal of Men’s Studies, 9, 81-142.

2 Miller, G. F. (1999). Sexual selection for cultural display. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power (Eds.), The evolution of culture: An interdisciplinary view (pp.71-91). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.