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BMJ. 2007 December 15; 335(7632): 1233.
PMCID: PMC2137051

Did sculpting give artists a health advantage before antibiotics?

A study has shown that great sculptors live longer than great painters, and the reason may lie in the greater level of exertion needed for the first job compared with the second.

Old master sculptors lived on average three years longer than old master painters, and the physical work involved may have helped boost the ability of their immune systems to fight off infections in the age before antibiotics, researchers say (Age and Ageing 2007 Dec 3 doi: 10.1093/ageing/afm172).

In the study, the authors created a database of European old master painters and sculptors, excluding those who had lived in the 20th century. Although Michelangelo was also a painter, he is classed as a sculptor because, say the authors, that is how he saw himself. The final analysis was of 262 great painters and 144 great sculptors. All but six in the database were men.

Results show that that painters lived three years fewer than sculptors (63.6±0.9 versus 67.4±1.1), a difference that was statistically significant (P<0.01).

Painters were much more likely to die before the age of 40 than were sculptors (9.1 versus 2.7% of the population), and many more sculptors lived into their 80s (21% versus 13% of the population). Sixty per cent of the painters compared with 48% of the sculptors died before the age of 70.

The researchers also found that the difference in longevity between sculptors and painters was not related to geographical location. The same trend in longevity of sculptors compared with painters was seen among artists in each of the individual countries, which included Italy, England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany.

The biggest difference, a full 10 years, was in Germany, where sculptors lived to a mean of 71.6 years compared with 61.1 for painters.

The report says there are many possible explanations, including differences in diet and social class, as well as working with different toxic materials—solvents and heavy metals for painters and stone and silica dust for sculptors.

The authors say that any explanation for the significant difference in the age of death between sculptors and painters must take into account the leading cause of death in Europe before the 20th century—infectious diseases.

“One intriguing possibility in explaining the mortality difference between sculptors and painters is the effect of moderate exercise on the immune system, which affects both cardiovascular mortality and death due to infectious diseases,” say the authors, who point out that sculpting stone expends more energy than applying tempera and oil to canvas or wood.

They say moderate exercise has been associated with increased B cell response and cite other research that shows that exercise in humans improves the antibody response after immunisation for influenza and reduces susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections.

“These observations suggest that prior to the advent of antibiotics, exercise may have been one of the few interventions protecting individuals from infectious disease mortality,” say the authors, from the University of Georgia.

That explanation may give added meaning to one of the more well known quotations attributed to Michelangelo: “I am a poor man and of little worth, who is labouring in that art that God has given me in order to extend my life as long as possible.”


Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Group