Mind & Body

Why Do Chess Grandmasters Live as Long as Olympic Medalists?

Everybody knows that regular physical activity is important for a long and healthy life. When it comes to sports, chess is about as inactive as they come. Players will sit motionless, staring at the board for what seems like hours before finally making a single move. That's why a study published last month is so surprising: chess grandmasters live just as long as Olympic athletes. How is that possible?

Living Like Bobby Fischer

There's plenty of research looking into how long various athletes tend to live. A 2010 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that elite athletes in endurance and mixed sports like running, skiing, soccer, and hurdling have a lower risk of death and a longer life expectancy than the general population. The authors credited that result to their superior cardiovascular health, and they found that the longevity of athletes in "power" sports like football and weightlifting was inconclusive. But a more recent study (published within a few days of the chess study, in fact) from France found that even Olympians in the least active sports, like archery and shooting, still benefited from the same boost in longevity as their aerobic-heavy counterparts. That points to something other than heart health.

So it makes at least a little bit of sense that researchers at the universities of Melbourne and Queensland in Australia wanted to see if the same was true of people in "mind sports," as they're called. And Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, and Philip M. Clarke focused on chess grandmasters because their rankings are meticulously tracked by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which makes them easier to study.

Included in the study was almost every grandmaster since 1950, the year the FIDE formalized the ranking process. They made sure every grandmaster they used was from a country included in the Human Mortality Database, which provides the average lifespan for someone in the country's general population. In total, 1,208 grandmasters were included. In the other corner, you had your Olympians. The athletes they included came from the same countries as the grandmasters, adding up to a grand total of 15,157.

The researchers then calculated how long each of the grandmasters and Olympians lived, starting from the date of their first achievement. That's important since starting from birth would introduce something called the "immortal time" bias, which plagued a famous 2001 study saying that Oscar winners lived longer than their less-successful peers. The idea is that Oscar winners, or chess grandmasters, by definition have lived long enough to make their achievement, so using the years leading up to the achievement doesn't say anything about its effects on longevity yet makes those false effects look huge. Sure enough, at age 30, a chess grandmaster and an Olympic medalist are expected to live to nearly 84, which is almost eight years longer than the general population.

Check Mate, Olympians

Of course, the big question is why? The results of this study seem to go against everything we know about what makes people live longer — chess grandmasters aren't particularly known for being any fitter, eating any better, or smoking any less than their non-chess-playing counterparts, as much as the authors wonder if that might be the case. Higher intelligence is linked to a longer life, but surprisingly, there's little evidence that chess grandmasters have a higher IQ than the rest of the population. But even if their brains aren't any brighter, their minds are constantly being sharpened — studies suggest that chess can reduce the risk of dementia, and dementia is linked to a higher risk of death. As the authors write, "...when it comes to predicting longevity both fitness of mind and muscle appear to be important."

But of course, there's the fact that becoming a chess grandmaster has some economic benefits. In Russia, for example, professional chess players were once supported by the Soviet government, and chess scholarships are funded by the current government. The opposite may also be true: achieving elite status in any field is a lot easier when you have financial support from a well-to-do family, and higher income is linked to greater longevity. Maybe people with financial stability are more likely to live longer and become elite achievers, rather than the achievement leading to the longer life.

Either way, this certainly bodes well for people who keep their minds sharp into their twilight years. The authors introduced the paper with an Isaac Asimov quote saying, "In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate."

"Not only does the game of life continue after the checkmate, but excelling in mind sports like chess means one is likely to play the game for longer," they concluded.

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Want to live longer? Check out "The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest" by Dan Buettner. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer June 6, 2018

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