Race impacts how our perceptions about control over life influences mortality

June 14, 2016 by Laurel Thomas Gnagey, University of Michigan
Credit: University of Michigan

Having a sense of control over our lives has an impact on when we die, but only if we are white and not black, according to research from the University of Michigan.

Using data from the Religion, Aging, and Health Survey, Dr. Shervin Assari of the U-M School of Public Health Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health and Department of Psychiatry, measured how participants felt about the they had over circumstances and various environmental factors that typically impact people.

They also were asked to rate their health.

In the study of some 1,500 people ages 65 and older, nearly equally divided between white and black, whites were more likely to express having a handle on life. When this attitude was measured against other factors of age, gender, health behaviors (smoking, drinking) and (presence of disease), there was a two times greater association between sense of control over life and a lowered risk of mortality for whites but not for blacks.

When the study followed the participants for three years gathering data on deaths, Assari found that the short-term risk of dying from all causes was 60 percent higher for those who said they have less control over their lives.

Previous research has shown that feeling in control of life protects against risk of mortality, but the participants in those studies largely were white, Assari said. The U-M study is the first to examine how race impacts mortality when considering how people perceive their well-being and ability to manage stress, anxiety and depression.

To assess perception of control over life, Assari asked participants to respond to statements such as: "I have a lot of influence over most things that happen in my life," "When I make plans, I'm almost certain to make them work," "I can do just about anything I really set my mind to," and "When I encounter problems, I don't give up until I solve them."

Overall sense of control over life is considered a stable personality trait that basically means people believe and things in the environment are external and do not have a controlling influence over their lives. People generally fall in a continuum that ranges from believing they have absolute mastery of their lives to having a sense of powerlessness and a belief that external factors like luck and fate guide their destinies, Assari says

"One explanation for our findings may be that low control beliefs may mean different things across populations and cultures," he said. "Low level of such control beliefs may better reflect feeling of powerless and low efficacy in dealing with stress among whites.

"The low sense of control over life may reflect different aspects of life for whites and blacks. Given the social and economic conditions that blacks face on a daily basis, low control beliefs may reflect a healthy realization of the real world around them. So, for blacks, low sense of control over life may be a realistic observation of their blocked opportunities."

Explore further: Link between depression, hopelessness stronger for whites than blacks

More information: Shervin Assari. Race, sense of control over life, and short-term risk of mortality among older adults in the United States, Archives of Medical Science (2016). DOI: 10.5114/aoms.2016.59740

Related Stories

Link between depression, hopelessness stronger for whites than blacks

May 9, 2016
At a time when a number of mental health organizations are sounding the alarm about the high incidence of suicide among middle-aged white males, new University of Michigan research finds that a sense of hopelessness—often ...

When it comes to predicting depression, race may matter more than was thought

March 4, 2016
Depression can strike anyone, taking a toll on mental and physical health, friendships, work and studies. But figuring out who's at risk for it is still a murky task.

Men more vulnerable to developing depression from long-term stress

March 28, 2016
It's long been believed that women suffer more of the stresses of life, and research has shown that repeated stress can translate into depression.

Prevention may be essential to reducing racial disparities in stroke

June 2, 2016
Blacks between the ages of 45 and 54 die of strokes at a rate that is three times greater than their white counterparts, according to the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, which looked ...

'Deaths of despair' drag life expectancy lower for whites

June 3, 2016
Rising drug and alcohol overdoses, suicides, and disease from chronic alcoholism—labeled "deaths of despair" by one expert—are cutting the lives of white Americans short by nearly a half a year on average.

Recommended for you

Early life trauma in men associated with reduced levels of sperm microRNAs

May 22, 2018
Exposure to early life trauma can lead to poor physical and mental health in some individuals, which can be passed on to their children. Studies in mice show that at least some of the effects of stress can be transmitted ...

Training compassion 'muscle' may boost brain's resilience to others' suffering

May 22, 2018
It can be distressing to witness the pain of family, friends or even strangers going through a hard time. But what if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate ...

Study finds popular 'growth mindset' educational interventions aren't very effective

May 22, 2018
A new study co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University found that "growth mindset interventions," or programs that teach students they can improve their intelligence with effort—and ...

Schizophrenics' blood has more genetic material from microbes

May 22, 2018
The blood of schizophrenia patients features genetic material from more types of microorganisms than that of people without the debilitating mental illness, research at Oregon State University has found.

Kids show adult-like intuition about ownership

May 22, 2018
Children as young as age three are able to make judgements about who owns an object based on its location, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.

Age-related racial disparity in suicide rates among US youth

May 21, 2018
New research suggests the suicide rate is roughly two times higher for black children ages 5-12 compared with white children of the same age group. The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), appears ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.