Asked by: Jay Hancock, Leicester
Anecdotally, smarter people do seem to live longer. Isaac Newton died in 1727 aged 84, the philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell lived to 97, while Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini died in 2012 aged 103. And it’s easy to concoct an explanation: smart people tend to be wealthier, so can afford better healthcare, and will probably have less physically demanding or dangerous jobs.
Yet studies suggest there may be a more subtle connection between longevity and intelligence (well, IQ scores, at least). In 2017, a team led by psychologist Prof Ian Deary at the University of Edinburgh published research covering over 65,000 people whose IQs were measured as children in 1947.
It emerged that those who had a higher childhood IQ tended to have a lower risk of diseases like lung cancer, heart disease and stroke in adulthood – thus boosting their longevity. This may reflect better lifestyle choices, like healthier diets and lower rates of smoking. But the link also remained after accounting for those factors. This suggests that there may be some sort of genetic link between IQ and longevity, though exactly what this link is remains unclear.
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Robert is a science writer and visiting professor of science at Aston University.