We can file the study noted here alongside a 2015 twin study as a compelling piece of evidence that stands in opposition to a significant role for high levels of exercise in human longevity. These two are still vastly outnumbered by studies supporting the idea that exercise drives a modestly slower pace of aging, particularly when it comes to the difference between no exercise and some exercise, but they are nonetheless quite clear in and of themselves and quite hard to ignore. The association between athletic performance and greater life expectancy is well proven, but if similar benefits are observed in more cerebral sports, what does that tell us about the underlying mechanisms?
This isn't just a question about physical activity or its absence, or about the confounding correlations between social status, education, intelligence, wealth, and health. There is a growing line of evidence to suggest that associations between intelligence and longevity may be as much mediated by genetics as by greater odds of economic success and sustained better health practices. Natural variation in human longevity is an intensely complex subject, which is one of the many reasons that I'm more in favor of forging ahead with rejuvenation therapies rather than spending significant time trying to understand the present state of aging.
In recent decades much research has been conducted into the longevity of a wide variety of sporting achievers. Almost all of the studies have been focused on a wide range of physical sports. A recent meta-analysis and several recent reviews have consistently found that elite athletes engaged in physical sports have a significant lower rate of mortality compared with the general population. The most comprehensive review, which involved nearly half a million individuals from 57 studies, indicates that the survival advantage for elite athletes was generally between 4 to 8 years longer.
Much less is known about those engaged in mind sports such as chess where the mental exercise component dominates. A search for articles reporting longevity of players of mind sports identified only one early study involving 32 chess players born before 20th century. This study found that professional chess players had shorter lifespans than those players who had careers outside of chess and argued that this might be due to the mental strain of international chess competition.
In the present study, we focused on survival of International Chess Grandmasters (GMs) which represent players, of whom most are professional, at the highest level. In 2010, the overall life expectancy of GMs at the age of 30 years was 53.6 years, which is significantly greater than the overall weighted mean life expectancy of 45.9 years for the general population. In all three regions examined, mean life expectancy of the GMs was longer than that of the matched general population, with gaps between them ranging from 1 to 14 years depending on age. Across the combined sample from 28 countries, the survival advantage over the general population significantly increased over time.
While intelligence may be a potential confounding factor given its positive effect on longevity, evidence of the link between IQ and chess ability is inconclusive. Several studies have failed to find a superiority of expert chess players in a variety of intellectual dimensions. A more likely channel is that to attain the Grandmaster title an individual may be encouraged to make necessary health improvements to improve one's cognitive performance. Although there has been some concern that chess training promotes a sedentary lifestyle that may reduce participation of the chess players in physical activities, this is not supported by existing evidence.
Another causal argument on the effect of developing chess expertise on survival relates to socioeconomic mechanisms. Becoming a chess grandmaster may provide an economic and social boost, which has been strongly linked to increased life expectancy. The relative income and social status benefits of GMs are plausibly highest for individuals in Eastern Europe, which would explain the particularly substantial relative survival advantage we found in this region.