DURHAM, N.C. — Cultivating some self-control early on in life is considered an essential pillar of success. According to a new study, establishing self-control during childhood is also a big advantage when it comes to personal health. Researchers from Duke University find that people who have high levels of self-control as a child usually grow up to be healthier adults when they reach middle age.
These individuals’ brains and bodies actually appear to be aging at a slower rate than their peers who weren’t quite as in control during adolescence.
The study defines self control as the ability to control one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, as well as working toward a goal with a plan. Researchers tracked 1,000 people in New Zealand all the way from birth to the age of 45 for this project.
A series of interviews over the course of the experiment revealed that people who have better self-control as a child are better equipped to navigate financial, health-related, and social challenges in adulthood. The Duke team measured financial competency via interviews and credit checks.
Self-control keeps you younger
Importantly, kids with self-control grew into adults with a healthier outlook on the aging process. They also seemed more content with their lives as a whole by middle age.
“Our population is growing older, and living longer with age-related diseases,” says first study author Leah Richmond-Rakerd, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, in a university release. “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.”
While researchers admit that many of the self-controlled kids come from financially secure families and have high IQs, they also clarify that these factors are not responsible for the connection between slower aging at age 45 and more self-control as a child. Analyses showed that self-control, not IQ or socioeconomic background, appears to be the factor that makes an aging difference.
Importantly, study authors also stress that nothing is set in stone during childhood. Some participants were able to increase their self-control between childhood and middle-age. These individuals also showed signs of delayed aging and robust health. So, it’s never too late to start building better self-control.
It’s never too late to make a change
Self-control is a trait that is very teachable at any age. With this in mind, researchers would like to see more societal investment in self-control training. They believe such initiatives would have a big positive impact on both life span and quality of life among populations.
“Everyone fears an old age that’s sickly, poor, and lonely, so aging well requires us to get prepared, physically, financially, and socially,” explains study author Terrie Moffitt, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “We found people who have used self-control since childhood are far more prepared for aging than their same-age peers.”
The study participants were all born between 1972 and 1973 and have been the subject to numerous assessments ever since. Teachers, parents, and the children themselves helped to measure self-control at ages three, five, seven, nine, and 11. Each person had their levels of impulsivity, over-activity, perseverance, and inattention measured as well.
Then, once participants reached the age of 26, researchers started looking for signs of aging in various organs and the brain. Across the board, kids who showed high levels of self-control aged at a slower pace as an adult. Individuals with the highest levels of self-control even tend to walk at a faster pace and have younger looking faces.
“But if you aren’t prepared for aging yet, your 50’s is not too late to get ready,” Moffitt concludes.
The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.