This week’s Nature contains an essay by Ian Deary on the well-established but somewhat mysterious finding that intelligent people live longer. He cites one particular study of approx 1 million men who completed national service in Sweden. They were followed for 20 years and intelligence/IQ predicted mortality better than body mass, cholesterol or blood pressure. Had about as strong an effect as smoking (though I don’t know how many IQ points equals how many cigarettes). Doctor Deary says that four non-exclusive explanations have been offered for the effect:
First, what occurs to many people as an obvious pathway of explanation, is that intelligence is associated with more education, and thereafter with more professional occupations that might place the person in healthier environments. Statistical adjustment for education and adult social class can make the association between early-life intelligence and mortality lessen or disappear. But not always.
Second, people with higher intelligence might engage in more healthy behaviours. Evidence is accruing that people with higher intelligence in early life are more likely to have better diets, take more exercise, avoid accidents, give up smoking, engage in less binge drinking and put on less weight in adulthood. But this too doesn’t seem to be the whole story.
Third, mental test scores from early life might act as a record of insults to the brain that have occurred before that date. These insults — perinatal events, or the result of illnesses, accidents or deprivations before the mental testing — might be the fundamental cause behind both intelligence test scores and mortality risk. So far, little evidence supports this.
Fourth, mental test scores obtained in youth might be an indicator of a well-put-together system. It is hypothesized that a well-wired body is more able to respond effectively to environmental insults. This ‘system integrity’ idea has a parallel in the field of ageing, where some data suggest that bodily and cognitive functions age in concert. Some supporting evidence comes from the finding that simple reaction speed — the time taken to press a button when a stimulus appears — can displace intelligence test scores as an even better predictor of mortality risk.