Keith Richards: Scientific explanations for the resilience of a rock legend

How has Keith Richards survived the excesses of his rstereotyoical ock 'n' roil lifestyle? We don't have all the answers, but here are some of the basic explanations...
The Rolling Stones Surprise Set in Celebration of "Hackney Diamonds"
The Rolling Stones Surprise Set in Celebration of "Hackney Diamonds" / Kevin Mazur/GettyImages

[NOTE: I am not a medical or behavioral expert, though I did a bit of research on the topic. This article is not an attempt to glorify drugs, but rather an attempt to demystify the survival of Keith Richards' despite the excesses of his rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

Also, by saying "rock 'n' roll lifestyle" I do not mean all people in rock music history are "on drugs" or "drunks," but that there are definitely people who match that stereotype. Coincidentally, this author does not do drugs or drink alcohol, so some might mistakenly label him "straight-edge." That being said, he may be killed off by excessive pizzas and cheeseburgers, so who would he be to judge too much anyway?]

In the annals of rock history, few figures loom as large as Keith Richards, the legendary guitarist of The Rolling Stones. Renowned not only for his musical prowess but also for his larger-than-life persona and infamous exploits, Richards epitomized the rockstar lifestyle of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, despite the excesses of fame, fortune, and debauchery that often accompany such a life, Richards not only survived but continues to thrive well into his later years (at least as of April 2024), defying the odds and surprising many observers.

The tale of Keith Richards is one of resilience in the face of extraordinary circumstances. During the zenith of his career, Richards indulged in a whirlwind of drugs, alcohol, and other forms of excess that would have felled lesser mortals. His escapades became the stuff of legend, with stories ranging from the outrageous, such as allegedly snorting his father's ashes, to the otherwise downright unbelievable, chronicled in the Rolling Stone article "19 Insane Tales from a Legendary Life."

What sets someone like Keith Richards apart?

What sets Richards apart is not just his ability to endure the ravages of his lifestyle but also his capacity to adapt and rebound. Despite jokingly referring to himself as "plastic," implying a certain indestructibility, Richards' resilience likely stems from a combination of factors. Luck undoubtedly played a role, as did genetics, and here I'll start theorizing that his ability to cope with stress may be attributed to his (perhaps relatively impressive) neuroplasticity — which is the brain's capacity to reorganize itself in response to new situations or environmental changes.

Addiction is a disease of neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reroute pathways, create new ones, or strengthen existing ones based on experience and learning. When a person uses drugs, their brain releases dopamine, which triggers a feeling of reward and pleasure. Repeated use of drugs creates continuous high dopamine levels, which can lead to neuroplasticity changes that train the brain to continue using drugs to achieve pleasurable feelings. This can lead to an "impaired ability to regulate the drive to obtain and use drugs," in the words of The National Library of Medicine — apparently medical-speak for "getting hooked."

Somewhat ironically (in a sense), neuroplasticity also plays a role in recovery from addiction. When Keith Richards moderated his behavior and overcame certain addictions, this is basically what was happening: "Recovery focuses on replacing or changing the harmful habit of using drugs or alcohol with healthy, positive habits such as exercising, enjoying hobbies, or volunteering. When a person in recovery develops a new healthy habit, the brain changes, creating a new neural pathway reinforcing the new habit. As the new positive habit is continually repeated, the new pathway strengthens through neuroplasticity. The neural pathways of the old harmful habits weaken since they are not being reinforced."

Why I emphasize the 'plasticity hypothesis'

The strong plasticity hypothesis suggests that certain individuals, like Richards, may possess greater adaptive responses to stressors, enabling them to survive and thrive in the face of adversity and overcome addictions. This adaptability could be attributed partly to genetic factors, such as the presence of genes that confer resilience to illness and addiction. Such genes may enhance an individual's ability to withstand the rigors of a stereotypical rockstar lifestyle, increasing their chances of survival.

Richards' resilience is further underscored by anecdotal evidence from friends and associates, who describe his ability to bounce back quickly from drug withdrawals and other challenges. While many succumb to the perils of excess, Richards has endured, defying the odds and outlasting a fair amount of his contemporaries. (For the record, Keith Richards has regularly maintained that, yes, quitting smoking was actually harder than quitting heroin, which likely is partly due to the social acceptability factor, unique patterned behavior, and the more obvious physical addiction aspects.)

I don't want to compare him too much to Wolverine, as I wouldn't characterize Keith Richards as superhuman, but there is a bit of a healing factor involved with someone like this, right? And hey, he likely had people who supported his sobriety efforts, and we might as well give them credit, too. Sometimes that could be the main factor, rather than my speculations above.

Final thoughts

In interviews, Keith Richards has often expressed gratitude for his continued existence, acknowledging the role of luck and circumstance in his survival. His journey serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of rock 'n' roll, embodying the ethos of living fast, somehow actually not dying young, and leaving a lasting legacy. As the living embodiment of rock 'n' roll resilience, Keith Richards remains an iconoclast — a testament to the enduring power of music, myth, luck, and the human spirit.

That being said, drugs are bad, m'kay?

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