Self-Controlled Kids Tend to Be Healthier Adults

Researchers found one of the benefits of self control was looking younger
January 31, 2021 Updated: January 31, 2021

In a new study, researchers found 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, the researchers report.

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, according to the study, which tracked 1,000 people from birth through age 45 in New Zealand, ready for life as well.

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 of the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“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 socioeconomic status and IQ. The analyses showed that self-control was the factor that made a difference.

And childhood isn’t 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, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University 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 Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, based in New Zealand, has tracked these people since they were born in 1972 and 1973, putting them through a battery of psychological and health assessments at regular intervals since, the most recent being at age 45.

Teachers, parents, and the children themselves assessed childhood self-control 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, researchers measured the participants 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 walk faster and have younger-looking faces at age 45 as well. “But if you aren’t prepared for aging yet, your 50s is not too late to get ready,” Moffitt said.

The U.S. National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the UK Medical Research Council, the Jacobs Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Lundbeck Foundation funded the work. The New Zealand Health Research Council and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment supports the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.

This article was originally published by Duke University. Republished via under Creative Commons License 4.0.