Self-control, the ability to contain one’s own thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and to work toward goals with a plan, is one of the personality traits that makes a child ready for school. And, it turns out, ready for life as well.
In a large study that has tracked a thousand people from birth through age 45 in New Zealand, researchers have determined that people who had higher levels of self-control as children were aging more slowly than their peers at age 45. Their bodies and brains were healthier and biologically younger.
In interviews, the higher self-control group also showed they may be better equipped to handle the health, financial and social challenges of later life as well. The researchers used structured interviews and credit checks to assess financial preparedness. High childhood self-control participants expressed more positive views of aging and felt more satisfied with life in middle age.
“Our population is growing older, and living longer with age-related diseases,” said Leah Richmond-Rakerd, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who is the first author on the study. “It’s important to identify ways to help individuals prepare successfully for later-life challenges, and live more years free of disability. We found that self-control in early life may help set people up for healthy aging.”
The children with better self-control tended to come from more financially secure families and have higher IQ. However, the findings of slower aging at age 45 with more self-control can be separated from their childhood socio-economic status and IQ. Their analyses showed that self-control was the factor that made a difference.
And childhood is not destiny, the researchers are quick to point out. Some study participants had shifted their self-control levels as adults and had better health outcomes than their childhood assessments would have predicted.
Self-control also can be taught, and the researchers suggest that a societal investment in such training could improve life span and quality of life, not only in childhood, but also perhaps in midlife. There is ample evidence that changing behaviors in midlife (quitting smoking or taking up exercise) leads to improved outcomes.
“Everyone fears an old age that’s sickly, poor, and lonely, so aging well requires us to get prepared, physically, financially, and socially,” said Terrie Moffitt, the Nannerl O. Keohane Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke, and last author on the paper. “We found people who have used self-control since childhood are far more prepared for aging than their same-age peers.”
The study appears the week of Jan. 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, based in New Zealand, has tracked these people since they were born in 1972 and 73, putting them through a battery of psychological and health assessments at regular intervals since, the most recent being at age 45.
Childhood self-control was assessed by teachers, parents and the children themselves at ages 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11. The children were measured for impulsive aggression and other forms of impulsivity, over-activity, perseverance and inattention.
From ages 26 to 45, the participants also were measured for physiological signs of aging in several organ systems, including the brain. In all measures, higher childhood self-control correlated with slower aging.
The people with the highest self-control were found to walk faster and have younger-looking faces at age 45 as well.
“But if you aren’t prepared for aging yet, your 50’s is not too late to get ready,” Moffitt added.
This research was supported the U.S. National Institute on Aging (AG032282, AG049789) and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (T32-HD007376), the U.K. Medical Research Council (P005918), the Jacobs Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Lundbeck Foundation. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study is supported by the New Zealand Health Research Council and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.