Nasser El Sonbaty, 47! Luke Wood, 35! Dallas McCarver, 26!
With each pro bodybuilder death comes the contention—from well-informed fans to hater trolls—that the Mr. Olympia is the equivalent of the Hunger Games, with participants destined for early graves. But men do expire in their 40s or 30s and even their 20s. Are the best pro bodybuilders really dying younger than the average man? How does their mortality stack up to, say, NFL players? And what’s causing the deaths? Let’s dive deep into the data and see what the numbers say.
In the 55 Mr. Olympias and 31 (American) Arnold Classics, 286 men have competed in the open divisions of one or both. We at The Barbell were able to confirm that 269 of the 286 are either alive (235) or dead (34) and we matched the birth year for each of the 269 with the mortality rate for all American men born in that same year. (Though a sizable minority of competitors were not American, the U.S. Social Security actuarial life tables provide the most accurate baseline.)
And the numbers say…
When we chart birth year mortality, the comparison looks like this:
- The greatest advantage for bodybuilders is amongst the grandpa crew born before 1950, and especially the nine born in the 1930s (five are still alive; a sixth died at 85; only one—a suicide—failed to exceed the male life expectancy). Don’t assume these men, some of whom were still competing in the ’80s, did not use steroids. It’s likely all of them did, if not to the extent of modern competitors. For their longevity, credit the healthy diets and exercise programs many of them maintain long after their last contests.
- All adult American men includes a lot of unhealthy guys. Approximately 38% are obese; 16% smoke tobacco. So, one could argue pro bodybuilders born in, say, the 1960s should be doing substantially better than average.
- Two years after, bodybuilding is still experiencing shockwaves from Dallas McCarver’s tragic passing at 26. But if we look only at bodybuilders born in the ’80s and ’90s, his is the only death amongst the 39 millennial competitors in our study—a 2.6% mortality rate. The corresponding American male average is 3.7%. Again, pro bodybuilders are dying less frequently than average.
Let’s eliminate the old-timers and also broaden our comparison to include fit men who better compare to bodybuilders. We’ll look at only Mr. Olympia and Arnold Classic competitors born from 1954-79. This quarter-century starts with those now turning the retiring age of 65 and ends with those, like seven-time Mr. O Phil Heath, who hit the big 4-O this year. Also, this 26-year span corresponds to research done by FiveThirtyEight on the (very high) mortality of pro wrestlers in relation to some pro athletes. We’ve updated their 2014 findings with estimates for the last five years to see how bodybuilder mortality corresponds to not just all American men but also WrestleMania participants and NFL, NBA, and MLB players.
Of the 178 Mr. Olympia and/or Arnold Classic competitors born from 1954-79 on which we have reliable data, 16 are deceased. Again, for the American male mortality rate, we used the actuarial life tables that correspond to birth years for each of the 178 competitors, providing a precise comparison.
And the numbers say…
Here’s what it looks like when we graph those results next to the updated FiveThirtyEight stats:
- Pro bodybuilders aged 40-65 are dying a little less frequently than the average American man and a lot less frequently than pro wrestlers. However, they’re dying at approximately twice the rate of professionals in the three major American sports: football, basketball, and baseball.
- Some pro wrestlers use performance-enhancing drugs. A stressful lifestyle, abuse of pain-killers and/or recreational drugs, insufficient health care, and obesity may also contribute to the high mortality rate of WrestleMania participants.
- The NFL began testing players for PEDs in 1987, while MLB only starting suspending doping violators in 2005, so this period overlaps with the “steroid eras” in football and baseball. (The NBA, which also tests, has never been associated with widespread PED use.) Still, it’s likely most PED users in those sports injected or ingested less than the average pro bodybuilder. Also, FiveThirtyEight surveyed NFL, MLB, and NBA athletes with a minimum of five years of big-league experience, so a greater than average percentage of these men are financially secure with good health care. Those factors, combined with a stronger emphasis on fitness than the general public, likely contribute to their low under-66 mortality.
The 34 deaths of Mr. Olympia and Arnold Classic participants break down like this:
- Heart (10 heart attacks, 3 heart failures, 1 vasculitis)
- Cancer (2 stomach, 1 leukemia, 2 unspecified)
- Unnatural (2 murders, 1 suicide, 1 heroin overdose)
- Kidney (2 kidney failures, 1 multiple organ failure, 1 failed kidney transplant)
- Unspecified Natural (4 reported as “natural causes”)
- Brain (2 Alzheimer’s disease, 1 brain aneurism)
Charted next to the causes of death for all American men, the two groups look like this:
- Respiratory (lung cancer, bronchitis, emphysema) is the fourth leading cause of male deaths, yet none of the 34 bodybuilders died from this. This is likely related to the low propensity for smoking by bodybuilders.
- Four kidney-related pro bodybuilder deaths is an abnormally high number and is likely associated with PEDs, especially insulin and diuretics.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. Still, the 14 pro bodybuilder cardiovascular deaths (13 between the ages 26 to 62) stand out. If the four deaths listed as “natural causes” were heart-related, over half of Mr. Olympia and Arnold Classic competitor deaths have been cardiovascular. This is alarming, especially when you consider that the greatest factors for heart disease (obesity, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise) are disassociated from bodybuilding. Furthermore, a 2018 study demonstrated weight-training may greatly reduce the risks for heart attack and stroke. Young or middle-aged men with low body fat who regularly exercise should not be dying of cardiovascular maladies at a greater rate than all men of all ages. Such deaths should be rare. The most likely culprit is performance-enhancing drugs. Excessive growth hormone can enlarge the heart and induce failure. As for testosterone, there is contradictory data on its relationship to heart health, but there is much reason for concern when injecting great quantities of test and/or anabolic steroids.
- Unlike pro wrestlers, pro male bodybuilders are not dying at an alarming rate. In fact, both overall and in the modern era, they are dying at a lower rate than the average American man.
- A lifestyle of exercise and healthy eating, along with a low propensity for smoking, may give older bodybuilders a substantial advantage over the average life expectancy. (See: How Long Will I Live? Simple fitness tests predict lifespans)
- On the other hand, elite bodybuilders are dying under age 66 at a much faster rate than pro athletes in major sports. Heart and kidney maladies are the disproportionate causes, and performance-enhancing drugs are the most likely culprits. (Get annual physicals with blood work, more frequent if necessary, and buy a home monitor to regularly self-check your blood pressure.)
(Research assistance: Peter McGough, Joe Roark, musclememory.com)