For Some, a Name Can Significantly Impact Lifespan

March 28, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Older African American man
Photo credit: Graham Crumb/Wiki Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Researchers conclude that how long you live is influenced partly by the name you were given at birth.

Is it possible that the name chosen for you by your parents can affect how long you will live or the chances for success in your life? Researchers at Michigan State University think so — especially for those in the African American community.

"A number of studies indicate that modern black names can act as a burden, whereas our findings show that historical black names conveyed a large advantage over a person's lifetime," said Lisa D. Cook, an associate professor at Michigan State University and co-author of the recent study "What's in a name? In some cases, longer life.

According to Michigan University, other studies in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere have looked at current black names such as Jamal and Lakisha, suggesting that having these modern-day monikers leads to discrimination.

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"When people see a name that's foreign or strange to them in their profession, implicitly they shut down, as these studies have shown," Cook said. "Then there is an extra layer of bias suggesting that this is possibly a female, poor or somehow unqualified candidate. Research has found that in the United States it's associated with racial discrimination and in Britain it's associated with class discrimination."

Studies have also found that having distinctive modern names such as Tremayne and Tanisha has led to discrimination among job applicants, college students seeking mentors, and researchers seeking federal funding, according to the university.

But Cook’s study found remarkable benefits in longevity for African American men with historic and biblical names such as Abraham, Booker, Isaac and Elijah.

Excluding socioeconomic and environmental factors, researchers studied death certificate data between 1802 and 1970 from four states — Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — and found that having a distinctive black name added more than one year of life relative to other black males, the university states.

"A whole additional year on their lives, in mortality terms, is remarkable," Cook said in a release. "Even a third of a year is significant."

Graph comparing life expectancy of American Americans

This chart compares life expectancies betwee 1902 and 1970 for African American males and African American males with historically significant or biblical names. Credit: Michigan State University

The study, additionally co-authored with Trevon Logan of Ohio State University and John Parman of the College of William and Mary, appears in the journal Explorations in Economic History.

Why the boost in longevity? One theory Cook suggests is that men with certain Old Testament names may have been held to a higher standard in academic and other activities, even implicitly, and had stronger family, church or community ties.

These strong social benefits may have enabled them to be more resilient and successful in life, the university suggests.

"I think the teachers in these one-room schoolhouses — teachers who also taught Sunday school — probably placed implicit expectations on students with these distinctive names," Cook said. "And I think that gave them a status that they otherwise would not have had."

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