"Mind Athletes," Health, and Longevity ♟️
Previously, we've alluded to research on the longevity benefits of elite athletics, as evidence of how years spent engaged in intense physical activity fortifies the body against chronic disease.
You might recall an analysis of data from 2814 French Olympians which found that they lived, on average, six and a half years longer than comparable individuals in the general population. And a systematic review of 54 studies, including data from nearly half a million elite athletes in a wide range of sports, found that these high-level competitors lived 4-8 years longer than controls from the general population who were matched for age and gender.
Given what we know about the profound impact that vigorous exercise has on the body, this makes a ton of sense.
But of course, "use it or lose it" doesn't just apply to your body – we now know that it also applies to the mind, and body and mind are inextricably linked. This has led some researchers to wonder if participating in "mental athletics" might also confer health benefits. You can imagine this might work both directly (by shielding the brain from neurodegenerative disease) and indirectly (remaining functional longer and better able to sustain health-related behaviors).
To that end, a couple of observational studies have been conducted, comparing health outcomes of elite athletes to elite chess players. Chess is a useful model here, in part because it is very cognitively demanding, of course, but also because it provides an objective measure of skill based on performance in competitions and a system of rankings which is continuously maintained. That makes it relatively easy to track individuals over long periods of time. (In other words, these findings shouldn’t necessarily be taken as being highly specific to chess.)
This Week’s Research Highlights
♚ Both older athletes and older chess players are less prone to chronic disease, compared to members of the general population.
Canadian researchers recruited 50 chess players and 69 masters athletes from competitions within the province of Ontario, all of whom were over the age of 50. They collected data on physical health outcomes (prevalence of physical injury and chronic disease) from all participants, and compared the findings to that of 64 moderately active and 62 inactive older adults, who were randomly selected from a large representative health survey in the general population. They found, unsurprisingly, that the masters athletes had by far the highest rate of injuries compared to all other groups. (Worth noting that most of these injuries were minor orthopedic issues, such as sprains and strains.) The chronic disease data is where things get interesting. Analysis revealed, curiously, that there was no statistically significant difference in the prevalence of chronic disease in masters athletes and chess players, but both were substantially less likely to suffer from chronic diseases than the normative groups that they were being compared to. In fact, prevalence of chronic disease was 3-4 times higher in the inactive gen population, compared to either masters athletes or chess players. And both the moderately active and inactive comparison groups were more likely to report arthritis, back problems, and high blood pressure. So does this mean that playing chess is outright superior – giving you all of the health benefits of physical exercise, but without the accompanying risk of injury? Initially, the researchers seem to say just that: "...similar to elite sport players, chess grandmasters are associated with a significantly greater life expectancy than the general population, suggesting competitive chess provides similar physical health benefits (i.e., mitigating chronic diseases) to competitive sport. In contrast, older adults who avoid cognitive engagement may find it challenging to manage not only cognitive and mental health but also physical health." However, given what we know about the highly specific molecular and cellular pathways activated by physical activity, this is probably not quite right. I think this conclusion is the correct one: "Moreover, it is possible older adults who participate in a variety of activities (e.g., chess and sport) may gain a combination of physical and cognitive health benefits."
♕ Elite chess players live longer than the general population, and experience a similar survival advantage as that of elite athletes.
Researchers analyzed data from 1208 chess grandmasters and 15157 Olympic medalists, emanating from 28 different countries. They extracted data on year of birth, year of attaining grandmaster/Olympian status, and year of death from all individuals, and compared the findings to the weighted mean life expectancy of the general population in the regions from which each of these elite competitors originated. They found that the life expectancy of grandmasters starting at age 30 (which also happens to be around the average age when they attained their title) was 53.6 years, which is significantly greater than that of the mean life expectancy at 30 for the general population (45.9 years). In parts of the world where the life expectancy of the general population is shorter, grandmasters gained as much as 14 extra years. Furthermore, there was no statistically significant difference in the survival advantage for Olympic athletes and grandmasters over the general population. Again, this is kind of perplexing, since most of the longevity benefit of being an Olympic athlete has been attributed to years of vigorous exercise. How can participation in a totally sedentary activity, like chess, mirror this? Well, one possible reason is that modern chess players might recognize the connection between mind and body, and engage in nutrition and exercise regimens to ensure that they stay sharp. But of course, as our friends at Brainjo will attest, it is also likely that exercising your mind has direct benefits for your health. MRI studies have revealed that playing chess literally changes the structure of the brain. Mentally engaging activities, like board games, are associated with reduced rates of dementia in older adults, which itself would prolong life. For those of us who are neither Olympians nor grandmasters, continuing to participate in mentally and physically demanding activities is probably ideal, as the researchers conclude: "...when it comes to predicting longevity both fitness of mind and muscle appear to be important."
Better Brain Fitness with Dr. T
Random Trivia & Weird News
As you can imagine, when international tournaments began in the 1850s, the uncertain duration of matches became untenable. Shortly thereafter, time limits were introduced, eventually leading to the time controls that now govern modern chess tournaments.
Podcasts We Loved This Week
- Kelly Jakubowski and Beatie Wolfe: Investigating the power of music for dementia. Via In Conversation.
- Susan Valot: What Causes Alzheimer’s? Scientists Are Rethinking the Answer. Via Quanta Magazine.
Products We Are Enjoying
Iodine is a key mineral for cognition, and has been famously described as a "brain-selective nutrient." Our top source of iodine-rich foods is the ocean, which is a major reason why "seaweed snacks" have taken off in recent years. However, recent investigations have revealed alarming problems with a lot of these products, including heavy metal contamination and highly variable iodine content. In fact, independent lab testing found that almost every seaweed snack that they tested had way more iodine than what was stated on the label, in doses that could be unsafe with repeated consumption.
GimMe Organic was one of the only seaweed snacks that passed all of the tests by ConsumerLab. I also happen to think that they taste the best, out of all of the seaweed snacks that I've tried. Good addition to soups and salads.
humanOS Catalog Feature of the Week
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This week, we’d like to highlight one of the lessons from our Daily Performance and Stress course.
This lesson addresses the somewhat complicated relationship between stress and our brain performance. Why do we sometimes seem to perform better when we’re under pressure?
Indeed, some of us practically rely on stress to get stuff done, although this is probably not ideal, as you’ll see in the video. And how do different “doses” of stress affect the structure and function of key parts of the brain?