It’s well established that elite athletes have a longer life expectancy than the general public. A recent review of over 50 studies comprising half a million people estimated the athletic advantage to be between 4 and 8 years, on average. This comes as little surprise. One can easily imagine how the same genetic endowment and training necessary to develop physical prowess in sport might also manifest in physical health. Now for the first time, a study published in PLOS One (open access) shows that athletes of the mind – chess grandmasters – show the same longevity advantage as athletes of the body.
An Tran-Duy at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues obtained data on over 1,200 chess grandmasters, mostly men, from 28 countries in three world regions, including whether or not they survived each successive year after receiving their title, all the way up to the beginning of 2017. From this, the researchers calculated the average yearly survival rates, adjusting for region, age and sex, which allowed them to come up with estimated life expectancies for grandmasters of different ages in different years. They did the same with data for over 15,000 olympic medalists.
There was no difference in the average life expectancy of the athletes and the chess grandmasters, but both groups showed a sizeable life expectancy advantage compared to the general population. For instance, in 2010, the average life expectancy of a chess grandmaster aged 25 was 6.3 years longer than the average for a 25-year-old member of the public. For a 55-year-old chess grandmaster, life expectancy was 4.5 years longer.
The study can’t tell us anything about why chess grandmasters live longer than the public. It’s possible some of the causes are indirect, such as the grandmasters possibly having higher average IQ (which is itself associated with longevity); elite chess players are also known to take more care of their physical fitness than the general population; and the social and economic benefits of becoming a grandmaster, especially notable in Eastern Europe, may have health benefits. Chess may also have direct health benefits, including via its known effects on the brain – for instance, it reduces risk of dementia.
Tran-Duy and his team begin their paper quoting Isaac Asimov: “In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate”, and they reference this quote in their conclusion. “Not only does the game of life continue after the checkmate,” they write, “but excelling in mind sports like chess means one is likely to play the game for longer.”