New research suggests that reaching the Olympic medal stand is not only a validation of an athlete's status as one of the top competitors in the world, it might mean that athlete has longer to live.
Two studies published in the British Medical Journal verify that the world's top athletes tend to have longer lifespans than their non-athlete contemporaries.
One study sampled 15,174 Olympians across the nine most successful medal-earning countries ( the U.S., Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, etc.), and compared athletes who had won a medal to the overall public. The researchers found that regardless of what color the medal was, these Olympians tended to live 2.8 years longer than the general public in eight of the nine countries surveyed.
"To put this survival advantage into some perspective, it is almost as large as the difference in life expectancy between men and women," says lead study author Philip Clarke of the University of Melbourne in Australia. "So male Olympic medalists can expect to live almost as long as the average woman in the general population."
The cause of Olympians' increased longevity is likely a combination of factors. Genetics may play a part, but athletes' intense training and robust diet also helps. Moreover, athletes' wealth allows them to live more healthful lives and take advantage of new diets and fitness regimens.
The results of the first study held true for athletes across all sports, but it isn't clear if training level has any effect on longevity. The researchers of the second study found that the intensity of an athlete's training did not correlate to how long they lived.
The second study examined nearly 10,000 deceased athletes who competed in the Olympics between 1896 and 1936. Those who participated in low intensity sports like cricket had similar mortality rates to those who competed in high intensity sports like cycling or moderate intensity sports like gymnastics.
The second study also found that athletes from certain sports, like boxing and ice hockey, did not necessarily have higher longevity. That's likely the result of increased damage to the body from these contact sports.
"People tend to think about sports as 'the more the better," says Frouke Engelaer of the Leyden Academy of Vitality and Aging in Leiden, Netherlands, lead author of the second study. "We have shown that within a great population of athletes, this does not (hold). You don't have to take the effort to do intensive rowing. Playing golf is just as good for your survival."