Chess Grandmasters Enjoy Same Longevity Advantage as Elite Athletes

chess grandmasters

Story at-a-glance -

  • Man has been searching for the Fountain of Youth for centuries, continuing into modern times with a search for antiaging creams, exercises and elixirs to help turn back the hands of time
  • A meta-analysis of over 50 studies has found an association between longevity and individuals who are chess grandmasters, potentially associated with factors intrinsic to achieving this level of success
  • Although intelligence is associated with longevity, not all studies show a link between cognitive function and the ability to play chess at an elite level, which means it may not be the reason for longer lifespans enjoyed by grandmasters
  • You may also enjoy increased longevity by improving your sleep hygiene, eating a highly nutritious diet, exercising and getting daily movement, and reducing chronic stress

By Dr. Mercola

Discovering a fountain of youth has been part of human history dating back centuries. The name most closely linked to the search is that of 16th century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who reportedly thought it would be found in Florida, where St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S., was founded.1 Although the story makes for good a legend, scholars now believe Ponce de Leon was interested in political gain and not longevity.2

The search for antiaging elixirs and remedies has not abated. Science got closer in the 1930s when telomeres were first discovered.3 In 1973, Alexey Olovnikov discovered telomeres shorten with time as they fail to replicate completely with each cell division.4 This means, as you get older, your telomeres get shorter. In 1984, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., from the University of California San Francisco, discovered how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.5

But the scientific explanation for longevity in individual populations continue to remain elusive. In studying different groups of individuals who live to 100, researchers agree there's no specific pattern. That said, scientists have identified several factors that improve your chances for living longer. A recent study has now demonstrated chess grandmasters enjoy the same longevity advantages as elite athletes.6

Play Chess, Live Longer

A meta-analysis7 of 54 peer-reviewed publications evaluated data on the life span of elite athletes participating in baseball, football, soccer, basketball and cycling. While there was no consensus for the reason the athletes enjoyed superior longevity outcomes over the general population, the researchers did conclude participation in an elite sport was generally favorable to life span longevity, resulting in an advantage between four and eight years on average.

These results may come with little surprise as it is easy to imagine how significant physical training may manifest in better physical health. For the first time, a recent study demonstrates chess grandmasters have the same advantage.8 The researchers' aim was to examine the overall and regional survival of international chess grandmasters against the general population and relative survival of other Olympic medalists.

Information from over 1,200 grandmasters and over 15,000 Olympic medalists were gathered across 28 countries from publicly available data sources.9 Using this data, the researchers calculated the average yearly survival rate, adjusting for region, age and sex. This gave them information to estimate life expectancies. When the data was compared between the Olympic medalists and the chess grandmasters, the researchers found no difference in the average life expectancy.10

However, both groups did show an advantage compared to the general population. For instance, a chess grandmaster at age 25 was expected to live 6.3 years longer than an average 25-year-old of the same gender, living in the same region. This study was the first to use advanced statistical methods in order to compare longevity between elite athletes, chess players and the general population.11

The researchers chose to compare survival rates of the groups at 30 and 60 years after being named a grandmaster or winning their first Olympic medal. They commented on the reasons grandmasters may enjoy greater longevity and the results, saying:12

"A more likely channel is that to attain the grandmaster (GM) title an individual may be encouraged to make necessary health improvements (e.g., reduced smoking and alcohol consumption, improved nutrition, more regular cardiovascular exercise, etc.) 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.

The importance of physical exercise and healthy diet for professional chess is well-known amongst GMs, and world championship contenders normally employ a full-time nutritionist and/or physical trainer in preparation for and during world championship matches.

While the frequency of health and fitness activities conducted by chess players is apparently less than that by athletes excelling in Olympic sports, there is evidence suggesting that chess players do exhibit a higher level of physical fitness than the general population. 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."

Are Grandmasters More Intelligent?

One argument offered to suggest why grandmasters enjoy a longer life is because chess requires a higher level of intelligence and intelligence is one confounding factor with an independent positive effect on longevity.13 In past years there has been a line of research suggesting there is no link between a person's general level of intelligence and ability to play chess.14 However, one analysis15 of previous studies suggests cognitive ability is a main factor enabling individuals to become good at chess.

Psychologists have debated the role of intelligence for decades in an attempt to differentiate between expertise, training and practice as pieces of the puzzle. Researchers from Michigan State University carried out the meta-analysis of 2,300 academic articles, particularly those including objective analysis of chess skill and a measure of cognitive ability. Lead author, doctoral student Alexander Burgoyne, said:16

"Chess is probably the single most studied domain in research on expertise, yet the evidence for the relationship between chess skill and cognitive ability is mixed. We analyzed a half-century worth of research on intelligence and chess skill and found that cognitive ability contributes meaningfully to individual differences in chess skill."

This meta-analysis was the first attempt by researchers to systematically investigate scientific evidence on a link between intellect and chess skill.17 Although the study found intelligence was linked to skill for the overall sample, those who were youngest and at a lower level appeared to benefit most. The findings were part of Zach Hambrick's expertise lab at Michigan State University. Hambrick offered another explanation:18

"Imagine that a genius can become a skilled chess player relatively easily, whereas a person with average intelligence may take longer. So the idea is, as you practice more and develop more skills and knowledge about the game, you may be able to circumvent limitations in cognitive ability."

He added that this may be true for chess, but not necessarily for all activities. In an earlier study, researchers found working memory and cognitive ability related to general intelligence predicted the success in sight reading music even among highly practiced pianists.19 In others words, working memory and cognition were greater predictors of a musician's ability to sight read, rather than hours of practice.

Grandmasters Require Physical Stamina to Compete

Although the featured study was not set up to determine the reasons for the longevity advantage of chess grandmasters, the researchers offered a few educated guesses based on their knowledge of the players requirements to compete, including competitive training regiments, the importance of exercise and healthy diet for professional chess players and evidence that playing chess may provide an economic and social boost linked to increased life expectancy.20

Playing chess requires stamina on the part of the player to maintain focus on a game, sometimes engaging a player's attention for hours. To maintain this focus players work to improve their stamina using good nutrition, adequate amounts of sleep and exercise.21,22 The authors also noted playing chess may reduce the risk of dementia23 and physically alter the structure of your brain.24

Players may also quit smoking, get exercise and reduce their alcohol intake in order to improve cognitive performance. These factors are very important to a grandmaster who often employs full-time nutritionists or trainers to prepare for world championship matches.25 Each of these are factors strongly associated with longevity and may be factors influencing the increased longevity in chess grandmasters.

Exercise and Longevity Inextricably Connected

There is some evidence to suggest grandmasters may have better physical fitness than the general population,26 another factor solidly associated with longevity. Exercise helps reduce your risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack, diabetes and high blood pressure, all associated with premature death.27 One study found highly active 65-year-olds may experience an additional five disability-free years. Another demonstrated increasing physical activity after age 50 can also add years to your life.

Senior citizens may experience the benefits, as those who exercise 30 minutes a day tend to live longer than their counterparts who spend the time on the couch. Even at age 73, physical activity is associated with longevity.28

In a study from the National Cancer Institute and Harvard University,29 researchers pooled data about exercise habits from six ongoing health surveys including information from more than 661,000 adults. Comparing 14 years of death records for the group, they found those who did not exercise were at the highest risk of early death.

People who met the guidelines for exercise, completing 150 minutes per week, enjoyed a 31 percent less risk of dying during the 14-year period. However, the individuals who enjoyed the greatest benefits were those who tripled the recommended level of exercise, working out a little more than an hour per day. They were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who have never exercised. Another smaller study30 came to similar conclusions.

Five Intelligent Health Decisions Related to an Increase in Longevity

Longevity is something most people seek, but you don't have to be an Olympic medalist or chess grandmaster to make life-altering choices that have a significant impact on your health and longevity. Here are some powerful positive changes you may consider.

Sleep

Estimates suggest nearly 33 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night. More than 83 million adults in the U.S. operate sleep-deprived every day. Although some in this fast-paced world believe sleep is reserved for after they retire, there is strong science to suggest sleep may be as important to your health and longevity as other factors.

Insufficient sleep may lead to slowed reaction times, increased neurological problems such as depression or dementia, increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and impaired immune function.

If you are already suffering from chronic disease it would be wise to take your sleep hygiene seriously. You'll find an in-depth discussion about the importance of sleep and how to improve your sleep hygiene habits in my previous article, "Sleep — Why You Need It and 50 Ways to Improve It."

Nutrition

For over 50 years I have been passionate about using food and nutrition to optimize my own health. Diet is clearly one of the foundational strategies for taking control of your health as you simply cannot out-exercise your mouth.

Ultimately, your body uses the nutrition you eat to fuel your exercise habits and enables your mind to be creative and productive. Even with an excellent exercise program, adequate amount of sleep and great hydration, if your diet is poor you will not reap the full benefits of your efforts.

Unfortunately, dietary advice may feel like a moving target as what is considered healthy one day may make headlines for being harmful the next. I issued my first Optimized Nutrition Plan nearly a decade ago and since then have tweaked it and updated it as needed. I would encourage you to use the food pyramid for optimal health found in my Updated Nutrition Plan — Your Guide to Optimal Health, as a guide to making your own meal plans each day.

Following my Optimized Nutrition Plan will help reduce your potential for experiencing vitamin deficiencies, which may not present with immediate symptoms but instead contribute to the development of chronic illness and disease throughout your lifetime.

Stress

The term psychological stress is actually misleading as no stress is solely experienced psychologically. Chronic stress will interfere with your immune system, cause epigenetic changes and trigger systemic inflammation. Although acute stress may be beneficial if you are in imminent physical danger, chronic stress is damaging over time.

Research has found those who work in high-stress positions are 21 times more likely to die of a heart attack during an altercation than during routine activities.31  More heart attacks occur on Mondays than any other day of the week, called the Monday cardiac phenomenon, believed to be related to work stress.32 Stress is also related to diabetes and at least a dozen other serious consequences, including cancer.

You'll find more information in my previous article, "Stress Doesn't Stay in Your Head." For ideas on how to deal with stress, including the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), see my previous article, "How Chronic Stress Promotes Spread of Cancer and What You Can Do About It."

Exercise

Exercise has a number of biological effects on your muscles, lungs, heart, joints and bones. Exercise is also necessary for optimal brain health as it reduces plaque formation, triggers genetic changes and the release of neurotransmitters well-known for their role in mood control and mood boosting effects.

Exercise is also important to preserve existing brain cells and promote the development of new neurons, effectively making your brain grow larger. For a guide on how to begin working out after a long break or if you're just beginning, check out my Beginner Workout Plan.

Movement

While fitness and exercise on a regular basis is necessary for optimal health, you may still increase your risk for cardiovascular disease simply by sitting too much. Just the act of standing up from a seated position is effective at counteracting the detrimental health effects of sitting too long.

These effects include increasing your risk of metabolic problems, including Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. I give you easy suggestions for how to get moving during the day at work in short bursts in my previous article, "Intermittent Movement Benefits Your Health. Here's How to Get More of It Into Your Work Day."