Stronger emotional control linked to healthier aging

January 29, 2021

Remaining calm might help you stay young. (Unsplash/Taylor Deas-Melesh)

Emotional responses to stressors vary wildly between individuals, from complete apathy about a situation to blow-out tantrums. Beyond the immediate social benefits of having a measured response to an incident, those who have better control over their emotions might actually be physically aging more gracefully as well, a new study suggests. 

Building on prior studies that had highlighted how those with better self-control tend to live longer lives, new research published Jan. 19 in PNAS found that individuals who had stronger emotional control also showed fewer signs of aging in their brain by midlife. 

The researchers wanted to investigate if people with stronger self-control were “better-prepared to manage the health, financial and social demands of later life,” said Leah Richmond-Rakerd, an author of the study and a professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology.

“If so, this could suggest opportunities to help people age more healthily: to prepare effectively for the challenges that accompany old age and stave off disease and disability as they grow older,” Richmond-Rakerd added.

The investigation used data from the Dunedin Study, a population-representation cohort of people followed from birth to age 45. It has followed the lives of 1,037 babies born in New Zealand between April 1, 1972 and March 31, 1973, and has had a 94% retention rate.

The current study defined the participants’ self-control style using an omnibus method that collected several kinds of reports at ages 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11. These reports were submitted by parents, teachers and researcher-observers, as well as by the children themselves, and assessed emotional control capabilities such as impulsive aggression, inattention and hyperactivity.

Later, from ages 26 to 45, participants had their physical health measured in a variety of ways, including body mass index, blood pressure, cardiorespiratory fitness, cholesterol levels and others. Additionally, at age 45, researchers collected structural MRI measures to detect signs of brain aging.

The current study found that the individuals who had the better levels of emotional self-control as children were aging more slowly as adults, compared to those who lacked that kind of self-control in their youth.

Having strong emotional self-regulation is key for overall mental health, and problems with that self-control can lead to a myriad of disorders, Richmond-Rakerd noted. These include both internal disorders, such as depression and anxiety, as well as external ones such as criminal behavior and problems with addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Additionally, these findings complement earlier studies that have linked mental health problems with the development of physical disease, Richmond-Rakerd said.

“Our health care system often divides treatment between the brain and the body, but our findings and those from other studies suggest that integrating the two could have long-run benefits,” Richmond-Rakerd added. “I think more work needs to be done to increase awareness of the link between mental and physical health, and the potential benefits of more holistic treatment models.”

Though the study highlighted how emotional self-control during childhood can have implications that last decades, it also found that gaining that self-regulation later in life can also provide a benefit.

“We found that adults who exercised better self-control developed more health, financial and social reserves for old age, even if they didn’t have so much self-control in early life. So, even if we didn’t practice so much self-control as kids, there might still be opportunities to prepare ourselves for aging when we’re in our 40s and 50s,” Richmond-Rakerd said. “I think this is an encouraging finding, and it also opens up middle age as a potential intervention window.”

For those looking to gain such self-control, Richmond-Rakerd said that a variety of strategies have been shown to help, including breaking down challenging or frustrating tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. For kids, other options include encouraging them to engage in challenging but creative pursuits, such as learning a musical instrument, to develop those self-regulatory skills.

Research into this topic is ongoing, and the team behind the study is interested in how large the benefits of self-control interventions are, as well as examining the actual mechanisms that connect early self-regulation with midlife aging.

“We think that one reason children with more self-control have aged more slowly by midlife — and why they have built more health, financial and social reserves as they grow older — is that they have better emotional regulation to deal with life,” Richmond-Rakerd added. “This means that they plan better so that they experience fewer crises and challenges, and that their response to challenges is more measured and thoughtful, when crises do arise.”

The article, “Childhood self-control forecasts the pace of midlife aging and preparedness for old age,” was published on Jan. 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It was authored by Leah Richmond-Rakerd of the University of Michigan; Avshalom Caspi,  Tracy d’Arbeloff, Maxwell Elliott, HonaLee Harrington, Renate Houts, Annchen Knodt, Sena Park, Line Jee Hartmann Rasmussen, Elizabeth Sack, Maria Sison, Jasmin Wertz, Ahmad Hariri and Terrie Moffitt, all of Duke University; Antony Ambler of King’s College; Marieke de Bruine of Tilburg University; Sean Hogan, David Ireland, Richie Poulton, and Sandhya Ramrakha, all of the University of Otago; Ross Keenan and Tracy Melzer of the New Zealand Brain Research Institute; and Adam Schmidt of Texas Tech University.

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