Longevity hack

To physically age slower, show some self-control

For healthy aging, self-control appears to be an "active ingredient."

eye aging
Dimitri Otis

To navigate life's stresses, the ability to control one's emotions, thoughts, and actions is essential. Research suggests self-control makes the difference between spiraling after a personal failure or moving forward thoughtfully. This emotional regulation goes beyond skipping dessert or snapping at a loved one— it actually relates to the likelihood we'll achieve our educational and career goals, or stave off disease.

According to a multi-decade study on human behavior published Monday, researchers discovered this ability pays dividends over a lifetime. Based on the findings, people who exhibit high self-control in childhood actually age slower, live longer, and better manage health, financial, and social demands as the years pass.

"Prior studies have shown that self-control predicts how long people live," study co-author Leah Richmond-Rakerd tells Inverse. Richmond-Rakerd is a psychologist at the University of Michigan.

"But we found that self-control also predicts how well-prepared people are as adults to live out healthy lives as they grow older."

Luckily, self-control isn't a fixed or innate capability cemented in early life. It's possible to proactively cultivate self-control even into middle age and in turn, better prepare for — and weather — inevitable aging.

LONGEVITY HACKS is a regular series from Inverse on the science-backed strategies to live better, healthier, and longer without medicine. Get more in our Hacks index.

HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — Multiple long-term studies demonstrate self-control — sometimes referred to as low impulsivity or high will power and conscientiousness — influences longevity and lifespan.

In the latest study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers explored how self-control influenced the pace of aging, and how prepared people were to face their mid-life years.

"Self-control may be an active ingredient in healthy aging," Richmond-Rakerd explains.

To pursue this question, the team followed a cohort of 1,037 individuals born in New Zealand between 1972 and 1973. They were studied from their birth to age 45 through a longitudinal study called the Dunedin Study.

The study team zeroed in on this middle age marker because it offers a pivotal turning point to make changes that confer meaningful outcomes for the rest of life. It also represents a period where early life choices have already begun to shape health and lifespan.

"Signs of one’s own aging emerge at this life stage, reminding us that multiple health, financial, and social demands are approaching: menopause and presbyopia set in, we start paying attention to our savings accounts, and we see our own futures in our parents’ decline," Richmond-Rakerd and her team write.

Throughout the nearly five-decade study period, participants completed interviews, examinations, brain scans, and questionnaires at ages: 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32, 38, and 45. Researchers also collected data from their parents, teachers, and peers.

The team amassed a trove of data documenting the groups' health, education, IQ, finances, self-control, social connections, and pace of aging. Self-control was measured via a mix of surveys, behavioral tasks, and interviews with families and teachers. Participants with low self-control exhibited high impulsivity, low frustration tolerance, and low persistence in reaching goals and completing tasks.

WHY IT'S A HACK — After combing through the data, researchers discovered "early beginnings matter," Richmond-Rakerd says. "Childhood self-control has long-lasting implications."

That's because, as middle-aged adults, children with better self-control aged more slowly than their peers: their bodies and brains were healthier and biologically younger. And they had developed more health, financial, and social reserves for old age, she explains.

The same high self-control group scored higher on tests of practical health and financial knowledge, they were planning for retirement, and they had stronger social networks. In sum, they were healthier and better set up to thrive in their later years.

As children, the study participants with better self-control also tended to grow up in more advantaged circumstances and have higher IQs, the team found. But the positive downstream effects of self-control could still be separated from people's socioeconomic origins and intelligence.

The underlying mechanisms behind self-control's effects aren't crystal clear yet, but the team hypothesizes it comes down to emotional regulation throughout life. Those who exercise self-control may plan better for the future and in turn, experience fewer crises and challenges. When these difficulties do arise, their response is more measured and thoughtful.

SCIENCE IN ACTION — Even if someone had low self-control as a child, this ability is like a muscle that can be strengthened. This can happen as people grow older: The researchers found that adults with better self-control developed more health, financial, and social reserves for old age, even if they didn’t have so much self-control as children.

"Even if we didn't exercise good self-control in early life, there may still be opportunities to prepare ourselves for aging when we are in our forties and fifties," Richmond-Rakerd says. "It's not too late."

Scientists haven't pinned down the optimal way to influence self-control, but note that cognitive behavioral therapy or emotional regulation programs can help. Organizational "nudge" tactics that make long-term choices like saving for retirement easier are also useful. It's not about ruminating on the future, but instead taking concrete steps to prepare for it.

"As adults, we still have an opportunity to lay the groundwork for healthier, more financially secure, and more socially-connected lives as we grow older, even if we haven’t been particularly planful in our younger years," Richmond-Rakerd says.

HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 🧠🧠🧠🧠 (Consistent future-facing activities add up)

Abstract: The ability to control one’s own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in early life predicts a range of positive outcomes in later life, including longevity. Does it also predict how well people age? We studied the association between self-control and midlife aging in a population-representative cohort of children followed from birth to age 45 y, the Dunedin Study. We measured children’s self-control across their first decade of life using a multi-occasion/multi-informant strategy. We measured their pace of aging and aging preparedness in midlife using measures derived from biological and physiological assessments, structural brain-imaging scans, ob- server ratings, self-reports, informant reports, and administrative records. As adults, children with better self-control aged more slowly in their bodies and showed fewer signs of aging in their brains. By midlife, these children were also better equipped to manage a range of later-life health, financial, and social demands. Associations with children’s self-control could be separated from their social class origins and intelligence, indicating that self-control might be an active ingredient in healthy aging. Children also shifted naturally in their level of self-control across adult life, suggesting the possibility that self-control may be a malleable target for intervention. Furthermore, individuals’ self-control in adulthood was associated with their aging outcomes after accounting for their self-control in childhood, indicating that midlife might offer another window of opportunity to promote healthy aging.
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