Background: A number of prospective cohort studies have examined the association between intelligence in childhood or youth and life expectancy in adulthood; however, the effect size of this association is yet to be quantified and previous reviews require updating.
Methods: The systematic review included an electronic search of EMBASE, MEDLINE and PSYCHINFO databases. This yielded 16 unrelated studies that met inclusion criteria, comprising 22,453 deaths among 1,107,022 participants. Heterogeneity was assessed, and fixed effects models were applied to the aggregate data. Publication bias was evaluated, and sensitivity analyses were conducted.
Results: A 1-standard deviation (SD) advantage in cognitive test scores was associated with a 24% (95% confidence interval 23-25) lower risk of death, during a 17- to 69-year follow-up. There was little evidence of publication bias (Egger's intercept = 0.10, P = 0.81), and the intelligence-mortality association was similar for men and women. Adjustment for childhood socio-economic status (SES) in the nine studies containing these data had almost no impact on this relationship, suggesting that this is not a confounder of the intelligence-mortality association. Controlling for adult SES in five studies and for education in six studies attenuated the intelligence-mortality hazard ratios by 34 and 54%, respectively.
Conclusions: Future investigations should address the extent to which attenuation of the intelligence-mortality link by adult SES indicators is due to mediation, over-adjustment and/or confounding. The explanation(s) for association between higher early-life intelligence and lower risk of adult mortality require further elucidation.