Top athletes live longer than we mere mortals. No surprise there, given their health-enhancing physical conditioning and high social status. But new research reports a different group of top competitors who tend to be more sedentary enjoy a similar boost in longevity: chess grandmasters.
"Elite chess players live longer than the general population, and have a similar survival advantage to elite competitors in physical sports," write Australian researchers Philip Clarke, An Tran-Duy, and David Smerdon, who is a grandmaster himself, as well as an economist.
Their study, in the online journal PLoS One, is the first to use advanced statistical methods to compare the longevity of elite chess players, elite athletes, and the general population. The researchers used data from 28 countries, primarily in Europe.
They focused on the 1,208 players who achieved the title of International Chess Grandmaster between 1950 and 2016. This title, they noted, "is based on rankings awarded to chess players by the World Chess Organization over many rounds of tournaments."
Their data was compared to that of 15,157 athletes who earned Olympic medals during that same period. The researchers compared the survival rates of the two groups at 30 and 60 years after their landmark achievement (being named a grandmaster, or winning their first Olympic medal). These figures were then compared to their home nation's life expectancy rates.
"Grandmasters and Olympic medalists had a significant survival advantage over the general population," they report. What's more, "there was no statistically significant difference" between the two groups. This proved true in all regions they looked at—Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and North America.
While the findings cannot explain the reasons for the elite players' longevity, the researchers offer some educated guesses. First, they point out that many of these competitors have training regimens that, while not at the level of top athletes, are surprisingly rigorous.
"The importance of physical exercise and healthy diet for professional chess is well known among grandmasters," they write. "World championship contenders normally employ a full-time nutritionist and/or physical trainer in preparation for, and during, world championship matches."
They note there is some evidence that playing chess, like playing music, can alter the brain in positive ways. What's more, they add, "becoming a chess grandmaster may provide an economic and social boost, which has been strongly linked to increased life expectancy."
Whatever the cause, these are fascinating findings, especially given that "mind sports" including video gaming and poker are becoming increasingly professionalized, with champions achieving stardom. It stands to reason that they, too, will likely enjoy these longevity benefits over time.
So if you're frustrated by your inability to convince your kids to turn off those video screens and go outside and play, you can always hope they're good enough to make it into the top ranks of their chosen sport. That level of competition may produce long-term health benefits—whether or not it involves actual physical exertion.