How to Live Longer: a New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Ethan Prater)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “How to Live Longer.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

It looks into why Hall of Fame inductees, Oscar winners, and Nobel laureates seem to outlive their peers. The deeper question in the podcast concerns the relationship between status (not income!) and longevity — a fascinating, complex, and controversial topic (here’s a good place to start reading) about which I believe we’ll hear a great deal in years to come. It will be valuable to know what kind of “status boosts” confer health advantages and, conversely, how disappointment and the like can chip away at us.

This podcast was timed to coincide with two events this week: the annual Baseball Hall of Fame election, in which no players were selected this year for the first time since 1996 (here’s ESPN’s take and here’s a useful statistical snapshot); and the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees.

Accordingly, here’s some of the research you’ll hear about in the podcast:

I am curious to hear from readers on this topic: whether from an empirical or anecdotal perspective, what are some ideas that you personally embrace in the hopes (if you have such hopes!) of living a very long life?

Also, FWIW: next week’s podcast is called “Who Owns the Words That Come Out of Your Mouth?” It’s about Winston Churchill, British vs. American copyright law, and a few other exciting things.

Audio Transcript

Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio.  It’s that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner.  He is the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name – it is “the hidden side of everything.” Dubner, how are you?


Stephen J. DUBNER: Kai, I am great, thank you.  Hope you’re well.


RYSSDAL: Happy New Year and all that.


DUBNER: Thank you -- to you as well.  Today, big news: the baseball Hall of Fame voting was announced -- I don’t know if you caught that -- and a grand total of zero people were elected to the Hall of Fame this year.


RYSSDAL: Now, were you surprised?


DUBNER: I was a little bit surprised.  It’s the first time since 1996.  You know, all the talk was about the fact that because the steroid age is happening now and guys like Clemens and Bonds, who deserved to be in, but won’t be elected …


RYSSDAL: Oh, oh!  Wait a minute.  Are we going to have to have that conversation?  You think they deserve to be in?


DUBNER: Well, no.  I’m not having that conversation -- that’s another conversation.  But the argument was that because those guys are not going to get elected, it would free up a little bit more space, potentially.  But, as it turns out, nobody got in.  And, I gotta tell ya – this is what I’m here to talk about today – this is bad news. If you get nominated to a Hall of Fame and don’t get in -- not only do you not get in, but I hate to tell you this, Kai, you actually might die a little bit sooner.


RYSSDAL: Ow!  Because?  Because?  Why?


DUBNER: Well, there’s a growing body of research that looks at the relationship between what we call “status,” generally, and life expectancy. So the economist David Becker – he looked at Baseball Hall of Fame data and he found that while a player who gets elected to the Hall of Fame doesn’t necessarily outlive the average baseball player, he does live a couple years longer than a player who gets nominated for the Hall of Fame but, year after year, gets rejected. Here’s David Becker:


David BECKER: “This seems to suggest to us that it’s really the story that getting close but not winning is what’s really bad for health, which we think is potentially a really profound point about the nature of status competition more broadly in our society.”


RYSSDAL: So actually it’s not “an honor just to be nominated.”  Right?


DUBNER: That’s exactly right.  Which is appropriate to talk about, since tomorrow the nominations for the Academy Awards will be announced -- there’s also an “Oscar Effect.”  Donald Redelmeier, who is a medical professor at the University of Toronto, has done research and now argues that Oscar winners outlive their peers.  Here’s his best guess as to why that is.


Donald REDELMEIER: “Once you’ve really got an uncontestable measure of your own peer approval, all of the subsequent nasty reviews or setbacks or rejections just do not seem nearly as aggravating.  They sort of roll off your back and, in turn, that makes you much more resilient.”


DUBNER: Now, Kai, let me say this: this longevity research is pretty complex.  Some researchers are unpersuaded. But the more fields you look at, the more plausible it seems that a status boost is good for your health. And perhaps more convincingly, that getting close to the mountaintop, but never quite reaching it –that’s a real setback. The economist Andrew Oswald looked at this phenomenon among 50 years’ worth of Nobel Prize winners.


Andrew OSWALD: “We do find that if you’re lucky enough to win the Nobel Prize, you can expect about 18 months more of life.”


RYSSDAL: OK, but hold on.  I mean, that’s great – 18 more months.  But when you win the Nobel Prize, you get like a million dollars.  How do you know it’s not just being rich that makes you live longer?


DUBNER: That’s a good question.  So that’s one of the first problems that a researcher has in this kind of research, which is to isolate a particular effect -- in this case status -- from other factors, like money. So they use a mathematical model that will control for other differences.  In this case, Oswald found that the money was not a factor in the Nobel winners’ longevity. It was, he says, the winning itself:


OSWALD: “A nominee for the Nobel Prize looks virtually identical to someone who actually wins the Nobel Prize.  The real difference is simply one of them gets the telephone call from Stockholm and the other doesn’t.”


RYSSDAL: Well, I will speak only for myself here, Dubner: I am not going to win a Nobel Prize.  Or get into the Hall of Fame.  Or win an Oscar.


DUBNER: (Laughs) Hold out hope!  Never say never, Kai!  Yeah, for most of us, that’s not going to happen. We did, therefore, go looking for something that might help anybody, if they want to live a little bit longer.  And, you know what, Kai?  We actually found something.


RYSSDAL: All right.  Hit me, brother.  What do you got?


DUBNER: Annuities.


RYSSDAL: Really?


DUBNER: Yes.  It’s a financial instrument you buy that pays off a set amount each year – but only as long as you stay alive.  So it’s like a “longevity lotto,” right?  Research shows that people who buy annuities tend to live longer – and not just because they are the kind of people that have the money to buy annuities to start with. It’s apparently that little extra incentive of the annuity payout that keeps people going.  So maybe those Hall of Fame losers want to stock up on the annuities this week.


RYSSDAL: Any little bit helps, I guess.  Stephen Dubner, is the web site. Dubner, we’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

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  1. James says:

    I have to wonder about the direction of causality in all this: whether it’s status causing longer life, or a generalized physical superiority causing both enhanced status and long life.

    As for the annuities, that would seem to be simple economics. If you are in general good health and expect a long life, an annuity would seem like a good investment. If you’re not, and so expecting to depart this vale of tears in the near future, you’re better off spending it all before you go.

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  2. frankenduf says:


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  3. Pat McClellan says:

    You made the suggestion that investing in an annuity gives people something to live for, and that the data shows they live longer because of it. I would suggest the opposite causal relationship. I come from a family with longevity — 3 of my grandparents lived beyond age 94, and my great grandparents lived quite long as well. Based on an actuarial survey, my lifespan is estimated in excess of 106 years!
    Recently, a former employer offered a buyout on pensions, and while a quick cash influx of $28k is enticing, it was an easy decision for me to retain the annuity option — which will likely pay me in excess of $5k/year for over 30 years and maybe more. So, my expectation of living long is driving my choice of an annuity.

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    • James says:

      I had the same choice recently, but figured that rolling over the buyout amount into my IRA would eventually net me more than the pension amount.

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  4. Joel Lagan says:

    As a longtime listener of Freakonomics, I was thrilled to hear my firm’s area of expertise mentioned (albeit not directly).

    Ruark Consulting performs policyholder behavior studies optional behaviors (like withdrawals) and non-optional behaviors (like death). In our recently updated mortality study, our findings in some ways confirmed what was surmised by Mullin and Philipson in 1997. That is that purchasers of the guaranteed living benefits (on variable annuities) have exhibited lower mortality than non-buyers, which perhaps is an indication of product selection decisions made by these purchasers.

    However, it should be pointed out that annuities with living benefit guarantees don’t cause policyholders to live longer; no more than housefires cause firefighters.

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  5. Eric M. Jones says:

    So let’s imagine that some strange ergot derivative used for treating some tragic neurotrophic disease has a curious side effect: The researchers note that, although it doesn’t cure patients at all, they began to look much younger and much healthier…. So the researcher privately experiments with low titrations and finds (BEHOLD!) the Fountain of Youth.

    You have to wonder what would or should become of this information. If you peruse the life-extension websites, you might come to believe this is a strong possibility. The old medical researchers who study this subject are driven with a passion that mere cancer researchers could never muster.

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  6. J.P. says:

    I would love to see similar research on the longevity and health of those who have lost US Presidential elections after being nominated by a major party. More broadly, it would also be interesting to see health outcomes for those who have come close to winning an election for head of state/government for any country. Finally, I wonder if these health outcomes differ from those who win election to one term, but then subsequently lose a reelection bid, like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.

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  7. mhenner says:

    I’m surprised the authors forgot that Nobel winners have to still be living to get the award.
    So many older nominees wind up dying before the selection is made

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  8. Justin Yarmark says:

    My takeaway is that the nature of status competition in our society can drive us to pursue activities that decrease our longevity. In a world where only winners derive the health benefits seems to take us backward not forward.

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