Self-confident children may be healthier as adults

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children who believe they have control over their lives may grow up to be healthier adults, new study findings suggest.

The study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, looked at the potential health effects of a trait known as “locus of control” -- the extent to which individuals think they can influence events through their own actions. Those who believe they are largely in charge of their lives have an “internal” locus of control, while those who feel they are not have an “external” locus.

Researchers found that of more than 7,500 British adults followed since birth, those who had shown an internal locus of control at the age of 10 were less likely to be overweight at age 30.

They were also less likely to describe their health as poor, or show high levels of psychological stress.

This link remained even after the researchers weighed a number of other factors -- including childhood IQ, education and family income.

“I think it is quite probable that a major explanation why children with a more internal locus of control behave more healthily as adults is that they have greater confidence in their ability to influence outcomes through their own actions,” explained lead researcher Dr. Catharine R. Gale, of the University of Southampton in the UK.

They may also have higher self-esteem, she told Reuters Health, which could also encourage them to take up healthy habits.

The findings are based on a sample of men and women who were part of a larger, ongoing study looking at the health of a group of Britons born in 1970.

At the age of 10, they completed a questionnaire designed to gauge their locus of control -- asking, for instance, whether they thought good grades were a matter of luck, and how often they felt there was no use in trying something because “things never turn out right anyway.”

In general, Gale’s team found, the more internal a child’s locus of control was, the less likely he or she was to be overweight or obese by the age of 30. Internal types also tended to give better ratings to their overall health, and have better scores on a measure of psychological distress.

Locus of control is often viewed as a natural component of a person’s personality. However, Gale said, there is also evidence that it is shaped by childhood experiences -- including children’s interactions with their parents.

“Parents who encourage independence and help children learn the connection between their actions and consequences tend to have children with a more internal locus of control,” she explained.

So, to some degree, according to Gale, locus of control may itself be controllable.

SOURCE: Psychosomatic Medicine, May 2008.