Differences in Children’s Behavior Predict Midlife Health Behaviors

Summary: Socioemotional behavior at age eight predicted health behaviors during midlife both directly and indirectly through education.

Source: University of Jyväskylä

A recent study by the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä and the Gerontology Research Center (Finland) investigated the paths from childhood socioemotional behavior to midlife health behavior decades later. Socioemotional behavior at age 8 predicted health behavior both directly and indirectly through education.

There are a wide variety of factors behind health behavior and one of them is personality. Differences in behavior and response style between individuals are already visible in young children.

A recent paper examined the role of socioemotional behavior in children in relation to physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption and body mass index assessed up to 42 years later.

Well-controlled behavior in girls, indicating a tendency to behave kindly and constructively in conflicting situations, predicted more physical activity in middle age. Social activity, which was seen, for example, as an eagerness to talk and play with other children, predicted heavier alcohol consumption in girls and smoking in boys. 

“Well-controlled behavior may appear as good self-discipline and the ability to follow the exercise plans in adulthood,” says postdoctoral researcher Tiia Kekäläinen. “Social activity, on the other hand, may have led later to social situations where smoking and alcohol consumption were started.”

The educational path matters

Some paths between childhood socioemotional behavior and midlife health behaviors went through education. Social activity in girls and well-controlled behavior in both girls and boys predicted better school success in adolescence and higher education in adulthood.

High educational achievement was linked, in turn, to less smoking and alcohol use.

“The results are in line with previous results based on this same longitudinal data and other studies,” says Kekäläinen.

“In particular, well-controlled behavior has been found to contribute to school success and education. These may provide information and skills that help to make healthy choices. The results of this paper suggest that differences in individuals’ behavior already visible in childhood are reflected in adulthood both directly and through various mediating mechanisms.”

This shows a group of children sitting on the banks of a river
There are a wide variety of factors behind health behavior and one of them is personality. Image is in the public domain

The study was part of the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development (JYLS) in which the same individuals have been followed since 1968 when they were 8 years old.

This study used data on socio-emotional behavior and parental socioeconomic status at age 8, school success at age 14, educational background at age 27, personality traits at age 33, and health behaviors at age 36, 42, and 50.

Funding: The data collection in JYLS at various stages has been funded by the Academy of Finland (latest funding number 323541) and the writing of this publication was funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture (PATHWAY-project, https://www.jyu.fi/sport/en/research/research-projects/pathway).

About this child development and health research news

Author: Laura-Maija Suur-Askola
Source: University of Jyväskylä
Contact: Laura-Maija Suur-Askola – University of Jyväskylä
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Pathways from childhood socioemotional characteristics and cognitive skills to midlife health behaviours” by Tiia Kekäläinen et al. Psychology & Health


Pathways from childhood socioemotional characteristics and cognitive skills to midlife health behaviours

This longitudinal study investigated the pathways from childhood socioemotional characteristics and cognitive skills to health behaviours in midlife. 

Methods: Participants in the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development (JYLS) were followed from age 8 (n = 369) to age 50 (n = 271). Outcomes included physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption and body mass index (BMI) assessed at ages 36, 42 and 50.

Predictors were socioemotional characteristics (behavioural activity, negative emotionality, and well-controlled behaviour) and parents’ occupational status collected at age 8, cognitive skills (school success at age 14 and the highest education at age 27) and adulthood personality traits (extraversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness). Longitudinal path modelling was used for analyses. 

Results: Well-controlled behaviour and extraversion predicted physical activity in women. Behavioural activity predicted alcohol consumption in women and smoking in men. Negative emotionality was not directly connected to health behaviours. Adulthood neuroticism was associated with smoking in men and with alcohol-related problems in both men and women.

There were some indirect paths from childhood socioemotional characteristics to midlife health behaviours through cognitive skills. None of the study variables predicted midlife BMI. 

Conclusions: Childhood socioemotional characteristics have some predictive value on midlife health behaviours, both directly and through cognitive skills.

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  1. And did you study the impact that being born with a disability versus becoming disabled later in childhood or in the midlife years had on these results. I’m curious. Because technically, I should be very physically active right now, at 39 years old. I was raised to be kind and considerate although I was shy and was an introvert. I smoked only briefly, and quit on my own, and stayed smoke free. I haven’t partook of drugs, and I do not drink. I used to be very physically active, until my hypermobile Ehlers Danslos Syndrome caused multiple injuries during and after childbirth, and I did not receive proper support. I am also autistic. Because of systemic barriers, I do not get out as much as I need, and have been forced into a sedentary lifestyle on account of the ADA not being adhered to in this country. You might want to include disabled people in these studies. Many of us lead or can lead very healthy fulfilling lives if this ableist and disablist society we live in did not devalue us. And that unfortunately, also has its roots in medicine and psychiatry.

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