Succeeding academically and socially, a new Northwestern University study finds, may require self-control but ultimately this same trait will undermine health — but only in those who come from a low-income background. For the disadvantaged, self-control provides success while stealing vigor, the researchers suggest.

“Youth who exhibit greater self-control go on to perform better in school, earn higher salaries, remain stably employed, and save more money,” wrote the authors in their study. “These youth are less likely to use drugs, be arrested for and convicted of crimes, and develop psychiatric disorders.”

Importantly, the link between all these positives and self-control is independent of general intelligence, demographic circumstances, and psychiatric history, the researchers say. It would seem, then, that self-control — described by the resarchers as “the capacity to regulate one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions” — spells a sunny future.

Can self-control really be a perfect pill or does it come with a few side effects?

To answer this, the researchers, led by Dr. Gregory E. Miller, professor of psychology in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, focused on a group of 292 African-American teenagers from rural Georgia. Mostly, the teens came from working-poor families: 65 percent lived in single-parent households, 45 percent lived in households with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, and fewer than 10 percent had a caregiver with a bachelor’s degree.

When the teens reached age 17, the researchers began annual tests, including psychosocial measures of self-control, aggression, and depression. Parents also rated the teens on these same measures. When the participants turned 22, the science team looked at a metric of cellular aging. The DNA profile told them how “old” participants’ cells look relative to their chronological age. Naturally, older cells relate to more health problems. Analyzing the results, the researchers discovered, no matter their background, all the teens scoring at the highest range of self-control fared better, psychologically, than their peers.

High levels of self-control equated to lower rates of depressive symptoms, substance use, aggressive behavior, and internalizing problems among particpants as they aged into adulthood. With the high-socioeconomic status participants, nothing more be said. However, for those from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds, one caveat need be mentioned.

Though they possessed greater psychological health than the less-self-controlled participants, their cells were biologically old relative to their chronological age.

“For low-income youth, self-control may act as a double-edged sword, facilitating academic success and psychosocial adjustment, while at the same time undermining physical health,” Miller stated in a press release.

Navigating challenges, the researchers noted, requires intense self-control, and this is not only demanding to sustain but also triggers the release of stress hormones. According to the authors, this may be the cause of the too-quickly aging cells.

While the authors suggest the disadvantaged participants may "go on to experience alienation in university and workplace settings,” maybe that will not be the case. This time-limited study, after all, does not measure what happens further down the road. Certainly we can hope these self-controlled participants do not feel alienated but instead find friends like themselves and so lead happier lives and reverse any earlier, negative health effects.

Source: Yu T, Brody GH, Chen E, Miller GE. Skin-deep resilience: Self-control forecasts better psychosocial outcomes but faster epigenetic aging in low-SES youth. PNAS. 2015.