When Hikaru Nakamura, a U.S. chess champion who has been ranked as high as second in the world, won his age group at a small 5K race in Florida last year, it triggered a minor ripple of interest among the small circle of people whose interests overlap both pursuits. Chess, after all, is about as sedentary as it gets, with seemingly toxic levels of stress during high-end competitions. You expect players to keel over in the middle of games from a heart attack (as one did at the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Norway), not to win running races.
But a new study comparing the longevity of chess grandmasters and Olympic medal–winning athletes suggests otherwise—and its surprising results hint that our understanding of the health benefits and risks associated with exceptional performance, either physical or mental, still has some gaps.
Researchers at the universities of Melbourne and Queensland in Australia combed the records of the World Chess Federation to identify every grandmaster since 1950, when the term gained official status. They focused on 28 countries in Europe and North America included in the Human Mortality Database, which provides a baseline for how long people in the general population are expected to live. They also identified every Olympic medalist from those countries between 1950 and 2016. That gave the researchers a dataset of 1,208 grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists, for whom they collected dates of death to determine whether they lived shorter or longer lives than the general population.
It’s pretty well established that elite athletes—even NFL players, at least according to some analyses—tend to live longer than the rest of the population. For example, a study published earlier this month tracked every French Olympic athlete between 1912 and 2012 and found that they lived, on average, 6.5 years longer than the general population, mainly due to a reduction in deaths from cancer. The simple narrative is that all that exercise makes them healthier. But when the French Olympians were divided into different event groups, even those in “precision” sports like archery and shooting seemed to have roughly the same longevity boost as marathoners and soccer players and so on.
Interestingly, there is evidence that success in other realms is also associated with longevity. For example, a famous study in 2001 found that Oscar winners lived about four years longer than Oscar nominees (though the statistical methods in that study have since been challenged). Perhaps the socioeconomic boost associated with success pays a dividend; there may also be psychological factors.
The picture is a little murkier for chess players. In fact, the only previous look at this question came from an obscure 1969 paper in the Journal of Genetic Psychology. As I explained a few years ago, this study used a very limited sample of 18th- and 19th-century chess masters to determine that world chess champions died earlier than outstanding chess masters, who in turn died earlier than lesser masters, who died earlier than the hacks who composed chess problems rather than winning tournaments. Increasing levels of excellence seemed to incur a progressively harsher toll on the chess players.
Results of the new study, with a far larger and less capricious dataset, were published in PLOS One earlier this month and found exactly the opposite. A chess grandmaster at age 30 is expected to live to 83.6, which is 7.7 years longer than the general population. Interestingly, the survival advantage of the chess players was essentially identical to the survival advantage of the Olympic medalists. Being great seems to be very good for you, independent of your physical habits.
There are all sorts of possible explanations and interpretations here. It may be that the people who make it to the top in both chess and sports tend to start life with a good set of genes, come from relatively privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, or have certain habits that make them both healthy and successful.
To my surprise, the explanation favored by the paper’s authors seems to be that aspiring chess champions “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.” It’s certainly true that many top chess players take their physical preparation very seriously. Still, I’m a little skeptical that the longevity benefits of chess come from physical fitness. After all, pretty much anyone in any cognitively demanding career stands to benefit from making those same generic health improvements. Nakamura’s time in that Florida 5K was 28:11, which is creditable, but for a male in his twenties, it’s not the sort of unusual performance you’d expect would signal an extra seven years of life.
It’s probably not worth spending too much time speculating on why chess players live longer, since this type of retrospective study can’t provide any solid answers. But the study does imply that the longevity benefit observed in elite athletes may have little to do with the herculean training efforts of their youth. Instead, other factors may be more important.
On that note, it’s worth pointing out one last longevity study, also published in the past few weeks. This one, in Circulation, focused on regular folks instead of world-beaters and looked for patterns in 42,000 deaths over a 34-year follow-up period in two major epidemiological studies. The researchers assigned subjects a risk score of either zero or one for five boringly familiar lifestyle risk factors: never smoking, keeping BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, getting at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise per day, moderate alcohol intake, and a healthy diet. Those who ticked all five boxes had a life expectancy at age 50 that was 14 years longer for women and 12.2 years longer for men compared to those who ticked none of the boxes.
In other words, you don’t have to be a hero or a legend to live longer. You just have to take care of some very basic things. And the fact that heroes and legends tend to live longer may simply reflect the fact that their success is linked in some way to their ability to take care of these basics. Of course, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t try to become a legend. That pursuit brings its own rewards, however far up the mountain you manage to climb—but immortality isn’t one of them.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.