A new study published in the journal, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) looked at how childhood self-control forecasts the pace of midlife aging and preparedness for old age.
“We studied whether as adults, children who exercise better self-control age more slowly, and are more prepared to manage the health, financial, and social demands of later life,” study author Leah Richmond-Rakerd told us. “We also investigated whether self-control in adulthood – not just childhood – is important for aging.”
Prior studies have shown that people with better self-control live longer lives. Richmond-Rakerd and the team predicted that people with better self-control would also age more healthily, in midlife.
“Our population is living longer,” Richmond-Rakerd told us. “An unfortunate side effect of this gain in lifespan is that we are also living more years with age-related diseases. It’s increasingly important that we identify ways to help people age healthily; to prepare effectively for the challenges that accompany old age, and to stave off disease and disability as they grow older. Our findings suggest that self-control might help set people up for healthier aging.”
Researchers used data from the Dunedin Study, a study of 1,037 babies born in Dunedin, New Zealand in the early 1970s who have been followed from birth to age 45. They measured children’s self-control at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 using reports from parents, teachers, and the children themselves. Assessments included aspects such as impulsive aggression and other forms of impulsivity, over-activity, perseverance, and inattention.
In adulthood, they measured how quickly they were aging across different organ systems, including the brain; and they also assessed whether they had developed the necessary health, financial, and social reserves for old age. For instance, they measured their practical health and financial knowledge, whether they were planning for retirement, and whether they had strong social networks.
“We tested whether children with better self-control aged more slowly and developed more health, financial, and social reserves in midlife,” Richmond-Rakerd told us. “Because children with better self-control tend to grow up in more advantaged circumstances and have higher IQs, we also tested whether any effects of self-control were evident after accounting for children’s socioeconomic circumstances and IQ.”
The results showed that as adults, at age 45, children with better self-control aged slower and they had developed more health, financial, and social reserves for later life. For instance, they scored higher on tests of practical health and financial knowledge, they were planning for retirement, and they had stronger social networks. Associations with children’s self-control could be separated from their socioeconomic circumstances and IQ. Researchers ruled out the possibility that self-control matters because children born into richer families have better self-control, or because children with higher IQs have better self-control. This suggests that self-control may be an active ingredient in healthy aging.
They also found that some people shifted naturally in their level of self-control from childhood to adulthood. And adults with better self-control aged slower and were more prepared for old age, even after researchers accounted for their levels of self-control in childhood.
“An important finding from our study is that early beginnings matter, but adulthood matters too,” Richmond-Rakerd told us. “So, even if we didn’t exercise so much self-control in early life, there might still be opportunities to prepare ourselves for aging when we are in our 40's and 50's.”
Richmond-Rakerd and the team believe their results suggest that if interventions to improve self-control are effective, they could help extend not just how long we live, but also how well we live, how physically healthy we are in later life, and how prepared we are to handle the demands of old age.
“Our findings also open up middle age as a potential intervention window,” Richmond-Rakerd told us. “A lot of research has focused on intervening in childhood. Our results indicate that the early years are certainly important. But midlife might also be a useful time to revisit the opportunity to promote healthy aging.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com