Self-control forecasts better psychosocial outcomes but faster epigenetic aging in low-SES youth

Gregory E. Miller*, Tianyi Yu, Edith Chen, Gene H. Brody

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations


There are persistent socioeconomic disparities in many aspects of child development in America. Relative to their affluent peers, children of low socioeconomic status (SES) complete fewer years of education, have a higher prevalence of health problems, and are convicted of more criminal offenses. Based on research indicating that low self-control underlies some of these disparities, policymakers have begun incorporating character-skills training into school curricula and social services. However, emerging data suggest that for low-SES youth, self-control may act as a "double-edged sword," facilitating academic success and psychosocial adjustment, while at the same time undermining physical health. Here, we examine this hypothesis in a five-wave study of 292 African American teenagers from rural Georgia. From ages 17 to 20 y, we assessed SES and self-control annually, along with depressive symptoms, substance use, aggressive behavior, and internalizing problems. At age 22 y, we obtained DNA methylation profiles of subjects' peripheral blood mononuclear cells. These data were used to measure epigenetic aging, a methylation-derived biomarker reflecting the disparity between biological and chronological aging. Among high-SES youth, better mid-adolescent self-control presaged favorable psychological and methylation outcomes. However, among low-SES youth, self-control had divergent associations with these outcomes. Self-control forecasted lower rates of depressive symptoms, substance use, aggressive behavior, and internalizing problems but faster epigenetic aging. These patterns suggest that for low-SES youth, resilience is a "skin-deep" phenomenon, wherein outward indicators of success can mask emerging problems with health. These findings have conceptual implications for models of resilience, and practical implications for interventions aimed at ameliorating social and racial disparities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10325-10330
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number33
StatePublished - Aug 18 2015


  • Aging
  • Health disparities
  • Poverty
  • Resilience
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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