Why Smart Humans — and Honeybees — Live Longer

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Pollen-Faced Bee on a Daisy

While scientists have long recognized a link between intelligence and longevity, new research on a species not always known for its intellectual wattage — the honeybee — has helped explain exactly why smarter people tend to live longer, fuller lives. The answer isn’t as surprising as you might think.

It all started with Ian Deary, a psychologist from the University of Edinburgh, who claimed to have found a biological link connecting intelligence and long life. He called it “system integrity,” meaning that a well-wired cognitive network not only performs better on mental tests, but also is less susceptible to environmental hazards. In other words, people who react better to stress, which is one of the rigors of aging, tend to live longer. (More on Time.com: Study: Genes May Predict Who Lives to 100)

Intrigued by this concept, researcher Gro Amdam of Arizona State University and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, devised a way to test the hypothesis using honeybees, because of their ability to be trained to learn information. The details of the study were published in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind:

In Amdam’s experiment, individual bees were strapped into a straw, where they learned to associate an odor with a food reward in a classic Pavlovian conditioning scenario. After only one or two trials, many bees learned to stick out their tonguelike proboscis in anticipation of a sugary droplet. Some bees took a little longer — as in humans, there are quick learners and slower ones.

To simulate aging, the same bees were then placed in plastic tubes and exposed to a high-oxygen environment, a metabolic stress test. All animals need oxygen to breathe, but an overload drives cells to churn out damaging free radicals that break down cell membranes and cause cells to commit suicide, triggering premature aging. The better learners tended to live longer during this ordeal — an average of 58.8 hours, as opposed to the poor learners’ average of 54.6 — suggesting they have a more robust antioxidant system, which mops up destructive free radicals.

This research suggests that the honeybees that were considered better learners were also the ones that could withstand environmental stressors more easily. However, scientists will have to expand on the research to determine whether these same biological differences exist in humans. If they do, Amdam told Scientific American, “There is an opportunity to help everyone live longer.”

Read the full Scientific American article here.

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