Rock Star Deaths: Is the 27 Club for Real?

The seeming spike in death risk at age 27 for rock superstars may just be legend, but the illusion itself is revealing.

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Matt Dunham / AP

Amy Winehouse

The notable persistence of the so-called 27 Club — the group of rock stars who have all died at age 27, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and, most recently, Amy Winehouse — makes it seem like more than mere coincidence. So a group of scientists decided to put the theory to the test.

Led by Adrian Barnett from Queensland University of Technology in Australia, researchers conducted a mathematical analysis to determine the significance, if any, of turning 27 in the world of rock ‘n’ roll superstardom.

The study included included only those artists who had had a No. 1 hit record in the U.K. between 1956 and 2007. Curiously, that criterion excluded Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, since their records never reached the top of the British charts. However, 1,046 other musicians did make the cut, including a few muppets (the actors who voiced them, not the puppets themselves) and even Frank Sinatra. The overwhelming majority was male: 86%. Seven percent died during the period studied.

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Although researchers found that rock superstars were significantly more likely to die young, compared with the rest of the U.K. population — two to three times more likely, depending on the time period involved — turning 27 carried no outsized risk. There was a cluster of deaths between age 20 and 40, with a peak at age 32, but overall, researchers concluded that age had less to do with rock-star deaths than did their risky rock-star lifestyles.

Not surprisingly, the 1970s and early ’80s were the riskiest time for rockers, when surveys of drug use recorded the highest levels ever. There were no deaths in young rock stars between 1985 and 1992, however, which the authors say may be attributed to improvements in medical care for drug overdose or to the shift in popular music, away from hard rock in the ’70s to pop in the ’80s.

I would note that this period also coincides with the Second Summer of Love in the U.K. (1988-89), when the use of MDMA, or ecstasy, at raves became the rage. MDMA carries a far lower death risk than the mixtures of alcohol, cocaine heroin and other depressant drugs that tend to be the major killers of rock stars.

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So why does age 27 seem so dangerous for musicians? It probably has to do with the way the human brain looks for patterns and ignores elements that don’t fit in. If Amy Winehouse had died just two months later, she would have been 28 and the question probably wouldn’t have even been raised. We also ignore the rock stars who were known for their excesses but survived — including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Lou Reed — as well as those whose deaths don’t fit the pattern: Sid Vicious who died at 21, for instance, and Jerry Garcia, dead at 53.

We want life to be predictable so we can manage risk, but the danger here doesn’t come from being famous, being a musician or being 27 — it comes from excessive use of alcohol and other drugs.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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