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Surprising Science

High Childhood IQ Linked to Lower Death Rates

The largest study of its kind show a direct link between intelligence and mortality. The implications are huge. 
This picture taken on September 29, 2013 shows children attending a class to learn how to speak English with an American accent at the Nature EQ school in Hong Kong. Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most important shifts occurring in our understanding of the human body is its interconnectedness with our mind. For eons “mind-body” has been in vogue in various circles (sometimes the vague “spirit” is thrown in), but even that term is ultimately futile: the mind is an aspect of the body, a function of the brain, a relationship to our environment. There was never any separateness to begin with.

This has important consequences for how we treat disease. The placebo effect is one example: thinking we’re being healed really does make a difference in our healing process. The nocebo effect gets less attention but is equally relevant—people expecting a negative outcome grow sicker even when receiving a placebo.

Pretty much all of homeopathy, for example, is sugar water—a placebo. If there is any reason it “works,” we can thank our mind. Perspective means a lot when it comes to health. Knowing that is another step in empowering ourselves to live a healthy lifestyle.

New research published in The BMJ found an important link between intelligence and disease that could affect millions of people in the future: higher childhood IQ leads to a decreased risk of chronic disease until the age of 79.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh examined nearly 66,000 men and women born in Scotland in 1936, matching their IQ scores taken at age eleven with their health up until 2015. The diseases they focused on included heart disease, digestive disease, stroke, specific cancers, dementia, and suicide and death from injury.

Among other findings, those who scored higher on IQ tests were 24 percent less likely to die from stroke, 25 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease, and 28 percent from respiratory disease.

Researches note that one issue with their research is the inability to fully assess the data by socioeconomic status, an essential factor in testing for IQ. For example, in the latest episode of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell discusses Brown v Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that integrated schools.

While the integration of black and white students is largely seen as an important social step forward, Gladwell notes that one of the sacrifices of the decision was black teachers. Many were fired; school districts that integrated schools overwhelmingly kept white teachers on board while shuttering black schools. This had a crippling effect on black students, who were better equipped to learn from teachers that reflected their own experiences and that looked like them.

The researchers from Edinburgh did undertake a sensitivity analysis in regards to socioeconomic status, as well as factored in perinatal and physical status of the children. They also factored in neuroticism and the personality trait, dependability, but found both did not provide a link between intelligence and death.

Future research should take socioeconomic factors into consideration, but for their part this is the largest scale study of its kind to date, especially unique in that it was nearly 50 percent women while many such studies have previously focused on males.

Most importantly this research provides yet another link between mind and body, the two aspects of our one being that needs to be taken into consideration at every step. Intelligence matters to health.

Many diseases of dementia can be fended off through simple practices like regular reading and attempting new cognitive skills, such as learning a new language later in life, as well as motor skills like picking up a musical instrument. Our outlook influences the functioning of and relationship between our organs. Intelligence comes in many shapes and sizes, but what matters is that we keep learning.

Derek’s next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/18 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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