Bad news for all those fitness enthusiasts who pull on trainers, burst from their suburban doors and set off along avenue, lane, and crescent in panting pursuit of the phantom of immortality – it’s not physical well-being that’s the key to longevity, but an active mind.
Years ago, when I was briefly a student of philosophy, I was struck by the great ages to which great thinkers lived. Jeremy Bentham was 84, Thomas Hobbes scored 92, Immanuel Kant made 80 and John Locke and Thomas Paine both achieved a respectable 72. And these were times when most people handed in their dinner pails in their thirties or forties.
In our own times, when life expectancy is so much greater, the biggest brains tend to clock up the largest scores. Sir Karl Popper – that great debunker of Marxism – died last year aged 92. Bertrand Russell, the most renowned philosopher of the twentieth century, was 98 when the grim reaper finally tapped him on the shoulder. Surprisingly, the greatest brain of modern times, Einstein, was a mere 76 when he died, although all his greatest work was achieved early on in life.
The anecdotal evidence points firmly to a connection between a well-flexed brain and a long life. Now two psychologists at Bonn University, Germany, have investigated the phenomenon on a more scientific basis and confirmed that the higher the intelligence, the longer a person can expect to live.
In two surveys over more than 20 years, professor Georg Rudinger and Dr Christian Rietz traced the lives of 222 people of both sexes, aged more than 60. A greater number were still alive from the group that achieved higher IQ ratings during the first survey 20 years ago than those who performed less well.
“We also found that most of the people in our first survey with a high IQ still performed well in the second, showing no sign of physical or mental decline,” says Rudinger.
“I cannot explain these results, except to suggest that people with richer mental experiences tend to have a desire to live longer,” he says.
Happily, social class doesn’t come into it. The people chosen for the surveys were from both middle and lower socio-economic groups, so the familiar cry of Guardian readers that a privileged lifestyle leads to inequalities in health does not ring true.
The findings have profound implications for our secular agnostic age, where it is generally accepted that the greatest goal of man is to defer death for as long as possible, and preferably indefinitely. For a start, it confirms what many thinking people have believed for a long time: that the work of the Health Education Authority (HEA) is not merely impertinent, but wholly misdirected.
When this foolish quango tells us how many egg-sized potatoes we should eat each year, its purpose – insofar as one can be found – is to prolong our lives through a “healthy” diet.
It would now appear that the objective can be better achieved by enriching our minds. The idea that the HEA is fitted for such a task – comprising as it does of second-raters whose combined IQs amount to no more than the average contents of one of the packets of condoms it urges upon us – is frankly preposterous.
So who is to do the job? The obvious answer is the teaching profession, whose principal purpose is to stretch young minds. But they are plainly not up to it. In fact, application of the Rudinger-Rietz criteria would suggest that most teachers can expect to peg out at about the age of 25.
If the professional instructors are no good, what of the amateurs, namely the media? That is an even bigger joke. Our tabloid press has earned a justifiable worldwide reputation wherever mind-rotting rubbish is under discussion. Five minutes a day spent reading The Sun – and that is all it takes to read it – must knock years off your life.
Television is little better, particularly children’s programmes which are a daily celebration of the least that the world has to offer.
But to put the onus for our mental well-being on someone else is to fall into the collectivist trap. It is the misguided belief that whole populations can, or should be, manipulated or engineered into prescribed patterns of behaviour – ostensibly in their own interests – that leads to the creation of such otiose bodies as the HEA.
It is up to individuals to exercise their brains, or not as the case may be. There is no legal compulsion (not yet anyway) on us to live longer. But the lesson from Bonn is plain: the brighter you are, the longer you can expect to admire the daisies in the field rather than push them up.
I suspect that some people have intuitively grasped the point because there is a fast-growing industry in self-improvement. But a word of warning: this business is as full of quacks as the health service.
I was recently offered a “personal development course” by post. I will leave you with the contents of the twelfth and final lesson. Ponder, at your leisure, its implications for longevity: “Programming your future. How to instruct your unconscious to bring you everything you ever dreamed of by manipulation of your future Time-Trac. How to clear out remaining trauma or obstruction to freedom by a return to the time before your incarnation using the Time-Trac Ritual. Some laws which rule the universe and how to use them. Quantum physics and Schrodinger’s Cat. An insight into the fourth and higher dimensions of reality. Four teaching stories: The Compulsion to Teach, A Time For Learning, Saint-Worship and Mohammed Shah, Murshid of Turkestan.”