Can childhood self-control compensate for the health impact of social disadvantage? Results from two cohorts

  • M. Daly


Background: The objectives of the current study were to determine whether the childhood capacity for self-control forecasts better health in midlife, and to decipher how self-control combines with early social disadvantage to predict adult health. Methods: Participants (N=25,381) were members of the 1970 British Cohort Study and the 1958 National Child Development Study for whom it was possible to derive a composite measure of childhood social disadvantage (based on parental education, occupational prestige, housing tenure, and crowding) and for whom self-control was rated by teachers at age 10 (1970 cohort) and 7/11 years (1958 cohort). Follow-up assessments were between ages 42-55 years where a range of health outcomes were examined (i.e. presence of chronic conditions, self-reported health, pain, psychological distress, physiological dysregulation, and mortality). Results: Across both cohorts, early life self-control reliably predicted each health measure (all p<.001) in adulthood over and above background disadvantage. Early self-control did not moderate the link between disadvantage and health. Rather, self-control showed a graded relationship with midlife health that was sufficiently large to compensate for approximately 90% of the influence of initial social disadvantage on average. Conclusion: This study provides new evidence that better self-control in childhood is associated with a range of favourable health outcomes in adulthood. Further, it shows that high levels of early self-control may enable those from disadvantaged backgrounds to maintain comparable health to their more affluent peers. These findings lend support to the notion that intervention programmes may help ameliorate health disparities by enhancing self-control among disadvantaged youth.
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