Everyone has felt out of control at one point or time in their lives. But having a sense of control can actually be a lifesaver. According to a recent study led by Frank J. Infurna of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, people who feel that they have control over their lives have a longer lifespan than those who feel less control. It has been established that feeling as if life is uncontrollable can lead to negative psychological and physical health outcomes. This is especially true in later life. For instance, when significant illness or health crises arise, people may feel blindsided. They may not be able to control the circumstances around them and therefore have less motivation to engage in healthy activities. This loss of control may also increase psychological distress, negative affect, depression, and anxiety. In contrast, people who have high levels of control over their circumstances may actually have better health and be at less risk for illness and disease because they believe their life condition is a direct result of their efforts. But does a lack of control increase risk of death?
To answer this, Infurna assessed the changes in perceived control over a 16-year period in a sample of 2,840 adults between 28 and 99 years old. He then looked to see how levels of control predicted mortality on a 19-year follow-up. Infurna found that control significantly predicted lifespan, particularly in the younger participants. “Our models found that higher levels of perceived control and experiencing increases in perceived control over time were more likely to be protective against mortality for people at younger ages,” said Infurna. This does not mean that increases in control are not beneficial in elderly people. It just suggests that a sense of control that is established at a younger age has the potential to set the stage for lifelong positive behaviors and attitudes that can dramatically protect people from physical and psychological illnesses. However, Infurna believes that every effort should still be made to strengthen the level of perceived control in elderly individuals, especially those vulnerable to declines in control as a result of illness or disability.
Infurna, F. J., Ram, N., and Gerstorf, D. (2012). Level and change in perceived control predict 19-year mortality: Findings from the Americans’ Changing Lives Study. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031041
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