London, Nov. 26: Something about the dreaming spires of Oxford and Cambridge enables their fellows to live for four years longer than average, according to a study published yesterday.
Oxford and Cambridge Universities epitomise a life of privilege: their fellows dine off silver, live amid world-class architecture, enjoy fine wines from the college cellar and teach some of the Britain and the world’s best students.
“We wondered whether the lifestyle is so life-enhancing that it leads to longer life spans among Fellows than among control cohorts,” said Dr Michael Brooke, of Cambridge University, where he conducted the study with Victoria Copas, Rachel Gylee and Dr Oliver Kruger in the department of zoology.
Their verdict, about to be published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, is that a 60-year-old don can look forward to almost four more years of life than his peers in the general population.
However, concerned that modern dons are stressed by the endless search for funding, the team adds: “Whether this longevity advantage will also be enjoyed by fellows elected during the late 20th century remains to be seen.”
Such a longevity advantage, at least at Cambridge, was predicted in fiction by the late science fiction author, Douglas Adams, in his book Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
For the new study, the team took a sample of 311 men born between 1900 and 1920, elected to Fellowships by the 20 Cambridge colleges founded before 1900, and who died aged 60 or older.
For comparison, they had two control groups: the first, thought to have a similar demographic composition and social background to the Fellows, comprised 558 men, also born between 1900 and 1920, who were undergraduates at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and who also died aged 60 or more.
The second control group was the wider UK population, whose life expectancy is recorded by the UK Office of National Statistics. For this group, the team noted the mean life expectation of further life for 60-year-old males born in 1911.
The study found that, at age 60, the median expectation of further life of Fellows was 19 years, significantly more than the undergraduates (16 years) and the national average for males (mean 15.3 years). Indeed, because a few Fellows born between 1900 and 1920 are still alive, the difference will eventually turn out to be even greater, said Dr Brooke.
Other factors were studied for their influence on long life but none made any difference.
These were: age at start of Fellowship, subject (arts or science), college age, college wealth or Fellowship category (such as ordinary Fellow or Master of College).
Why are the Fellows living longer' “It seems unlikely that the enhanced longevity of fellows is due to childhood background, because the undergraduates live no longer than the national population,” said Dr Brooke. One suggestion is that it “could be due to the [assumed] greater intelligence of fellows, if there were a link between intelligence and longevity”.
Another is that the college lifestyle enhances longevity.
“Such features might include a secure job, accommodation and pension, a supportive community and the esteem of one’s peers. They are features shared with a monastic lifestyle, and earlier work has demonstrated enhanced life spans among monks,” said Dr Brooke.
However, Prof. Kurt Lipstein, a Fellow of Clare College, who is still supervising students, writing articles and giving summer courses at the age of 94, believes that his genes (“I had a grandmother who was 95”) more than his lifestyle are the reason for his longevity. The emeritus professor of law yesterday said: “I can’t tell you why I am so old.”
But he added that he lived frugally and did not enjoy excesses — such fare as stuffed swan washed down with few bottles of claret. He also gave up smoking 33 years ago.
Prof. Lipstein, who has been a fellow since 1956, admits that college life is probably more secluded and quieter than average. A recent college newsletter said he “is a Clare institution... seeming never to grow older”.
Born in Germany in 1909, Prof. Lipstein became a member of the German judicial service but was disqualified by Nazi law of 1933 and took refuge in England.