Kids with More Self-Control May Become Healthier Adults

Toddlers may not be paragons of self-control, but a new study shows the amount of restraint displayed by children as young as three may be able to help predict their health, financial stability and criminal activity decades later.

Individuals with lax willpower as children were more likely to have health problems in their thirties including high blood pressure , high cholesterol, breathing problems, gum disease and substance dependence than those who were better able to rein in their impulsivity as tots.

Greater self-control in childhood was also associated with higher income in adulthood. And kids with poor self-control were more likely to become single parents, have credit problems and be convicted of crimes as adults.

The results held even after the researchers took into account the children's IQ and social class.

It's possible that teaching self-control to children could reduce the costs society incurs from these individuals' poor health, crime and financial instability, the researchers concluded.

"Our findings imply that innovative policies that put self-control center stage might reduce a panoply of costs that now heavily burden citizens and governments," the researchers wrote.

The study, led by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi of Duke University in Durham, N.C., will be published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Childhood self-control

The researchers analyzed data from more than 1,000 people in New Zealand who were followed from birth to the age of 32. During childhood, their self-control was assessed by parents, teachers and the children themselves.

In addition to the link between poor self-control in early childhood and poor outcomes in adult life, the researchers found that adolescents with low self-restraint were more likely to make mistakes that could affect them throughout their lives. These adolescents were more likely to start smoking by the age of 15, leave school early and become parents unexpectedly.

They also found that children who were able to improve their self-control as they grew were healthier as adults.

Interventions to improve self-control might work best when provided as a "one-two punch," occurring in both early childhood and adolescence, the researchers said.

Will interventions work?

The findings agree with the results of previous long-term studies, though only a few such studies have been conducted.

"This well-conducted study is another important step in understanding how character and maturity are important to later health and success," said Howard S. Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who was not involved with the research.

Previous work has shown that "conscientious, dependable, prudent and persistent children and adults do indeed stay healthier, achieve greater success and live longer," Friedman said. He cited another long-term study (the ongoing Longevity Project, which has followed 1,500 Americans since 1921) that he researched for his recent book "The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study" (Hudson Street Press of the Penguin Group, 2011).

However, Friedman cautioned against banking on interventions designed to teach kids self-control, because our level of self-control is due, in part, to biological factors (such as our levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which are difficult to change).

"Just as some people are more biologically prone than others to gain weight or become addicted, so too some individuals are inherently more likely to remain imprudent and impulsive," he said.

In addition, the benefits of self-control may be due in part to good social relationships such as stable marriages. Interventions that only target self-control, without improving social relationships, might be ineffective, Friedman said.

And Friedman has found that some people, such as artists and inventors, can be successful in their work even if they lack strict self-discipline. "Even if an effective way of improving self-control could be developed, we should think very carefully about how we would use it," he told MyHealthNewsDaily.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.