Could your teenager's personality predict how long he or she will live?
Yes, claims new research that finds high school students who tend to be calm, empathetic and intellectually curious are more likely to still be alive 50 years later than their peers who are less so.
The finding does not prove that certain traits in adolescence actually cause people to live longer; it only reveals an association between the two.
But the conclusion stems from an in-depth analysis of personality surveys conducted in 1960, involving nearly 27 000 high school students across the United States. Those results were then stacked up against participant deaths due to all causes over nearly 50 years.
"Essentially, we find that high school students who report adaptive personality characteristics – things like high levels of calmness and low levels of impulsivity – have a lower risk of death over the ensuing half century," said study author Benjamin Chapman. He is an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and public health sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
In addition to calmness and impulsivity, the initial survey gauged teenage levels of social sensitivity; leadership; energetic disposition; self-confidence; tidiness; sociability; intellectual curiosity; and maturity.
Chapman said his team "looked initially at each trait one by one". That meant that calmness was linked to a reduced risk of early death, whether or not the same teen also possessed other protective or risky traits.
Still, "adolescents who are more sociable tended also to be more self-confident, and so forth," he observed, suggesting that some traits tend to group together in the same person.
Chapman also noted that personality traits were assessed on a spectrum, so that each teen was characterised as having relatively high or low levels of a particular trait. And that meant that the degree to which a teenage trait was associated with a lower premature death risk also fell across a continuum.
For example, highly mature teens saw their long-term risk for an early death fall by about 6% for every statistically significant move up along the maturity spectrum; it fell by 8% for every notable bump in calmness and energetic disposition.
Bigger trait differences would likely produce even more dramatic protective benefits, the study authors suggested.
The findings were published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
The initial personality survey asked more than 377 000 high schoolers to complete a battery of psychological tests back in 1960.
Death records dating up to 2009 were obtained for nearly 27 000 of them. By that point, 13% had died. The team did not assess specific causes of death.
Empathy and calmness
And regardless of a teen's ethnic or family background, those who scored higher in terms of energy, empathy, calmness, tidiness, intellectual curiosity and maturity – as well as lower for impulsivity – faced a lower risk of death over the 48-year period.
"The insight of this work is that characteristics that we think are not particularly helpful in teens for immediate outcomes – like getting good grades, getting into college, adjusting socially and emotionally to everyday life – actually can have very long-term health consequences," said Chapman.
"The good news is that people can and often do change," he added. "There are many points in life between high school and a half-century later where chains of negative events can be halted or reversed in a sense."
Kit Yarrow is professor emeritus of psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. She suggested the findings make intuitive sense.
"Human connection is strongly correlated with health and happiness, so it's no surprise that those with more empathy – our social glue – would fare better," she said.
"Meanwhile, impulsivity is dangerous," Yarrow added. "[And] people with stronger personal control are more likely to avoid substances and reckless behaviour which are detrimental to health."
By contrast, "a calmer, more mature person will make better lifestyle choices that have long-reaching consequences," she said.
William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, agreed that personality drives the everyday health decisions that ultimately impact longevity.
"Personality is pervasive in predicting everything about us," he said. "Who we think we are, what we achieve, the type of job we have, how we deal with stress, whether our relationships last. And now, thanks to this and other research projects, how long we live."
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