Contact: Katherine Duggan, PhD
For Release: Immediately
Conscientious people tend to live longer, scientists have found. And that makes sense. The ability to control your impulses, persist, be dependable and plan ahead are all linked to behaviors that benefit health. But could such conscientious behavior actually hurt certain people?
A pioneering study suggests so. Black young men who are conscientious as teenagers but wind up low on the financial and education totem pole by their early 30s appear to suffer a toll on physical health in adulthood that isn’t experienced by white youths or less conscientious black teens. Although conscientious teenagers of both races are most likely to become positive, optimistic and purposeful men by age 32, racial differences in their health profiles stand out. The new study, published online, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
At the start, participants were 220 Pittsburgh youths 15 to 17 years old; just over half of them were black. The teens themselves and their parents rated how conscientious these young men were, and researchers also had information on the parents’ education and socio-economic status (SES).
In a follow-up 16 years later, the conscientious black youths who weren’t well educated and made little money by their early 30s scored significantly worse than the other men on tests for metabolic syndrome (MetS). MetS is a cluster of conditions—abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure and blood sugar, and excess fat around the waist. MetS significantly raises the risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and earlier than average death from any cause.
“It’s stunning and remarkable to see this by the early 30s—and especially for conscientiousness. We didn’t think being conscientious could function like this,” says Katherine Duggan, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the lead study author who worked with Karen Matthews, PhD.
“These are kids who are working really hard to overcome their circumstances, and despite their best efforts are unable to. This unrewarded achievement striving may have poor physical health consequences,” she adds.
Parents’ ratings of the youths’ behavior bore no relation to worse health profiles later—it was only the youngsters’ own reports. Parents may not have a complete or accurate view of their teens’ behavior, Duggan speculates. Also, how stressed black men felt as adults or how much discrimination they reported facing showed no link to their MetS scores.
But why would these differences show up in black teenagers and not whites? There may not be as much variability among the whites or it might take longer for links between conscientiousness and metabolic patterns to emerge in them, Duggan says. Also, it’s entirely possible that conscientiousness has gained such a strong, generic thumbs-up for health because scientists have not tested if its benefits accrue equally for different racial groups, she suggests. This is the first study to consider race and SES in testing whether conscientiousness has different consequences for cardiovascular and psychological health, says Duggan.
The findings do not necessarily apply to women or people in other geographic areas, she points out, so more research in other groups definitely is needed.
Study Link: https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000688
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”