But a long-lived comedian is more of an exception than a rule. John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Lenny Bruce, Patrice O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, Chris Farley, Bernie Mac, and Andy Kaufman all died in their 30’s or 40’s. This is sad to be sure, but it's even sadder when you consider that comedians hasten their own deaths while improving our health.
“Laughter is the best medicine.” The saying has been around for years – and it has merit. Laughter reduces cortisol production, which is a stress hormone that taxes our health and makes us gain weight. Laughter may improve our immune system function as well, and this fights off or prevents infection. A 2009 review showed that several studies indicated that laughter improved immune cell function (natural killer cells) and increased antibody levels (sIGA).
Laughter improves respiratory function and cardiac function because it increases respiratory rate and requires increased blood flow. These were reviewed in a very funny Christmas article in the British Medical Journal in 2013.
Laughter works on our brain too. Besides relieving stress, laughter triggers the release of endorphins that help our mood – and a good mood is a definite benefit to our health. Laughter also works on the neural pathways of resilience, so that we bounce back from disappointment better.
There have been few if any studies that link laughter to extended longevity; however, a 2013 study of centenarians showed that they do tend to laugh more, as part of the PATL (positive attitude toward life). Linking laughter directly to longevity would be very difficult in the scientific sense, but the above stated health benefits can’t be hurting us, can they?
Apparently all this benefit comes at a cost to those giving us their gift. Comedians don’t just seem to die young, they are dying younger. Several studies have looked longitudinally at the health problems and obituaries of people in different professions, and that funny kids have more health problems later in life.
As part of a study of high intelligence individuals called the Terman Life Cycle Study (1922-1991), those kids rated by their parents as having a good sense of humor tended to have more health problems as adults, including alcoholism and lung disease from smoking.
In a three-year study of police officers in Finland, those that were rated funnier or more humorous tended to be overweight, smoked more, and have more cardiovascular disease. For funny people who choose to become comedians then numbers just get worse. A 1992 study showed that comedians and humor writers died at younger ages. They tended to have more physical and mental health problems. This might relate to the environments in which they work – smoke and alcohol filled clubs, or it might reflect their tendency to see the humor and positive in things and not pay attention to risks of the unhealthy habits in which they engage.
A recent review of deaths by profession shows that performers of all sorts, including comedians, tend to die younger – health problems most certainly playing a role in their earlier demise. Robin Williams had suffered for years with substance abuse problems, bouts of severe depression, and heart disease. Comedians tend to have more depression than the general population and the suicide rate of performers, including comedians, is twice that of the general population.
But which comes first, do depressives become comedians because their altered thinking lends itself to looking at the world differently, or perhaps it is a way of self-medicating (as is drug abuse they tend to fall into) and fitting in with the world. Or, does comedy and the rejection that often comes with it, lead to more bouts of depression? Whichever it is, the physical and mental health problems of humorists seem all the more tragic when it is considered how much good these people do for us.
Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD