Personal control over specific roles in later life can prevent premature death, says new study

December 13, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Older adults who feel they have control over roles they value live longer than those who don't, according to a new study. Being a parent, grandparent or provider can add value to an elderly person's life. And having control over such roles appears to be more important to people as they age than feelings of control over life as a whole. This finding is reported on in this month's Psychology and Aging, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

In a nationwide survey of 884 older adults (65 years and older and retired), psychologists Neal Krause, Ph.D., and Benjamin A. Shaw, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan compared for the first time whether a person's global and/or role-specific control affected his or her mortality rate. To determine this, the researchers first determined the health of each participant (self-rated health, serious chronic illness, functional disability) to statistically control the influence of these variables on their mortality.

The participants were then asked to choose three roles they valued the most in their lives and rank order them. Parenting, grandparenting, other relative roles, friend, homemaker, provider, voluntary worker, church or club member were chosen as the top roles. The participants were also asked about their feelings of control over life as a whole.

The participants who scored higher on role-specific personal control measures tended to adopt healthier behaviors and were more likely to be alive at the six and seven year follow up, said the authors. On the other hand, the participants that scored lower on role-specific personal control measures were more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and suffer from obesity; all risk factors for premature deaths.

Older people are more likely to live longer if they are able to maintain a sense of control over the role that is most important to them, said the authors. Those with feelings of control over their most important role were less likely to engage in unhealthy behavior and suffer a premature death than those who felt that they did not exercise much control over the role that was most important to them. "Control over the second and third most important roles were not related to mortality nor were feelings of control over life as a whole," said Dr. Krause.

As we age, our physical and psychological resources decline, said Dr. Krause. However, there is considerable individual variation in the aging process and in where people place their values on why they like being alive. "A goal for the gerontologists is to be aware of these individual differences and be aware of what people value the most."
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Article: "Role-Specific Feelings of Control and Mortality," Neal Krause, Ph.D., and Benjamin A. Shaw, Ph.D., University of Michigan; Psychology and Aging, Vol. 15, No. 4.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/pag/pag154617.html

Neal Krause, Ph.D., can be reached by telephone at (734) 763-5583 or by email at nkrause@umich.edu.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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