Michael Phelps of the U.S. kisses his 19th Olympic medal during the London 2012 Olympic Games. Phelps’s gold medals suggest that he may have a longer than average life. (MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS)
Olympic stars live longer, though this benefit may also pertain to other athletes

When medal-winning athletes return home from the Olympic Games, their fame may be short-lived, but they can look forward to a long life. A new study has found that Olympic medalists live an average of 2.8 years longer than the rest of us.

The study used data on 15,174 male and female athletes who won medals in Olympic Games since 1896 and found that 30 years after their success at an Olympics, 8 percent more medalists were alive than were similarly aged people from their country.

Commenting on the study’s weaknesses, the authors suggested that maybe you don’t need to win a medal — or even be good enough to make an Olympic team — to outlive the average person: “Athletes generally, not merely the elite, could have similar survival advantages,” they wrote.

The effect, a second study concluded, isn’t seen just in Olympic athletes who participated in high-endurance or high-intensity events. Looking at Olympians who competed between 1896 and 1936, researchers found no difference in mortality, for example, between cyclists, rowers, tennis stars and cricket players.

A factor that did make a difference in mortality was physical contact. Olympians in sports with higher rates of bodily collisions, such as boxing, had an 11 percent greater mortality risk than those in sports with minimal collisions.

Both studies were published online in the journal BMJ. The researchers hypothesized that medalists might live longer because of their intensive training or exercise levels throughout life, or because their success led to increased wealth or education, but more research will be needed to determine what is at play.

ScienceNOW , the daily online news service of the journal Science