Researchers from Northwestern University studied around 300 rural African-American teenagers. Those from low-income families who exhibited high levels of self-control, and were thus more likely to achieve their goals, had immune cells that were biologically much oder than their actual age.
Rapid ageing of these cells has been linked to premature death and its thought to be due to long-term high levels of stress hormone.
“To achieve upward mobility these youths must overcome multiple obstacles and often do so with limited support from their schools, peers, and families. Even if they succeed, these youths may go on to experience alienation in university and work-place settings and discrimination if they are African-American”
“Collectively these experiences seem likely to cause persistent activation of stress response systems”
Professor Greg Miller went on to say “For low-income youths, self-control may act as a double-edged sword facilitating academic success and psychological adjustment while at the same time undermining physical health”
In the research those with high self-control were able to focus better on long-term rather than short-term goals. were less depressed, used substances less frequently, and were less aggressive – regardless of their gender, family income or education
In addition those from low-income families were more likely to have the ageing immune cells.
Previous studies have shown that poorer children with better self-control were also at greater risk of heart disease because of their obesity, high blood pressure and levels of stress hormones in their blood.
The researchers add “These patterns suggest that for low-income youth resilience is a skin deep phenomenon wherein outward indicators of success can mask emerging problems with health”
They also think that providers of “character-building programmes” should include health education to help the youth mitigate health problems that stop them achieving their full potential. Low-income youths who do well in school and stay out of trouble are thought to have overcome disadvantage but it’s only half the full story it seems.
It would be interesting to know if these findings translate into other cultures and countries or whether they are only applicable to African-Americans from poor backgrounds.