By Randy Dotinga
FRIDAY, Feb. 7, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- If you feel like you have most things in your life under control, this could make you feel even more confident: New research suggests you'll probably live longer than other people.
The connection holds only for people with less education, however, and the study findings aren't definitive. It's difficult to specifically determine how one part of life -- a sense of control over events -- affects life-span when so many other factors are involved.
Still, the researchers behind the study say they've found strong evidence that a sense of control can more than make up for the months of life that are lost, on average, when a person isn't well educated.
"Health and longevity are not just due to health care access," said Margie Lachman, a professor of psychology and director of the Lifespan Initiative on Healthy Aging at Brandeis University. "Attitudes make a difference. How you construe your circumstances and challenges determine whether you take action or give up, or feel stressed or motivated."
The study, which was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, appeared online Feb. 3 in the journal Health Psychology.
Researchers already know that people who feel helpless instead of in control tend to suffer from greater stress, which can be harmful to health, Lachman said. It's also clear that poorer people and those with lower levels of education are at greater risk of poor health and shortened life-spans, she said.
The new study aimed to look at how both a sense of control and educational level combine to affect life-span. The researchers tracked more than 6,100 people in the United States who responded to health surveys from 1994 to 1996, to see what happened to them by 2009. Nearly 600 participants, aged 25 to 74 in the mid-1990s, died by 2009.
The researchers found that the risk of dying increased among those who had lower levels of education, but feeling a sense of control counteracted the increase in risk. The trend held up even after the researchers adjusted the statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by factors such as whether someone smoked.
But among people with higher levels of education -- those with at least a college degree -- feeling a sense of control didn't seem to make a major difference in life-span, the researchers said.
Why is a sense of control so important? "People with a high and low sense of control will see the same situation differently, perhaps as a challenge versus a threat," Lachman said. "This has implications for what actions they take, if any, and for stress."
She added that it's important to understand that the study looks only at the sense of control people perceive they have. "Whether individuals that we studied actually ... have control over their lives is irrelevant in our study," she said.
Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, praised the study and cautioned that having a sense of control isn't an isolated phenomenon.
"Perceptions of control can be partially derived from happiness or satisfaction, and there is probably a feedback process at work," Neupert said. "A low sense of control may lead to less happiness, which in turn would lead to even lower sense of control."
Neupert said the findings show that simply being poor or uneducated doesn't automatically translate to feeling helpless. "The idea that someone with low education can have high levels of perceived control and outlive their peers with the same education is a powerful finding," she said.
For more about stress, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.