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Health Behaviors Tend to Stick Through Middle Adulthood, Study Finds

— May 3, 2024

Research shows some behaviors developed in childhood will stick with a person into adulthood.

New research suggests that health behaviors tend to solidify and remain relatively stable throughout middle adulthood—a period often marked by significant life changes and potential health concerns. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Jyväskylä’s Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences and Gerontology Research Center, highlights the interconnectedness of health habits, with positive changes also being observed during the study’s 19-year timeframe.

“We often see studies that examine smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical activity in isolation,” explains Johanna Ahola, a doctoral researcher involved in the study. “Our approach takes a more holistic view, recognizing that people engage in a combination of health behaviors simultaneously.”

The study, based on the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development (JLS), tracked the same group of individuals at three points in their lives: at 42 years old (2001), 50 years old (2009), and most recently, at 61 years old (2020-2021).  The JLS is a remarkable ongoing project that has followed the development of the same participants for over 50 years, providing a unique window into the long-term trends of health behaviors.

Health Behaviors Tend to Stick Through Middle Adulthood, Study Finds
Photo by Norma Mortenson from Pexels

The findings revealed a pattern of stability in health behavior patterns across middle adulthood. This stability, however, wasn’t entirely static. Encouragingly, the study also observed positive changes in behavior during the 19-year period.

“The decrease in smoking rates throughout the study was particularly noteworthy,” says Ahola. “This decline could be attributed to a combination of factors, including increased awareness of the health risks associated with smoking, societal changes promoting healthier lifestyles, and perhaps even a growing focus on preventative health measures as people enter middle adulthood and face a higher risk of developing chronic diseases.”

Beyond the interconnectedness of health behaviors, the study also identified sociodemographic factors influencing these patterns. Women, married individuals, college graduates, and those employed in white-collar professions were more likely to exhibit healthier behaviors.

The research team delved deeper, exploring the connection between personality traits and health behaviors. “This aspect offered a fresh perspective compared to previous research,” explains Ahola. “While it’s been established that individuals with high extraversion tend to be more physically active, our study surprisingly found that lower extraversion scores were associated with healthier behaviors.”

The study highlights the complex interplay between various factors influencing our health choices. While health behaviors tend to solidify over time, the positive changes observed offer a glimmer of hope.  Understanding the factors that promote healthier habits, including personality traits and life circumstances, can inform public health initiatives and interventions aimed at encouraging healthier lifestyles throughout middle adulthood and beyond.

The JLS provides a valuable resource for researchers to explore the complex relationship between personality, social factors, and health behaviors.

By continuing to analyze the rich data set provided by the JLS, researchers can better understand how health behaviors evolve across the lifespan. This knowledge can then be used to develop more effective strategies to promote healthy habits and improve overall well-being throughout middle adulthood and beyond.


Health behaviors accumulate and remain relatively stable throughout middle adulthood

Health-related behaviours found to be stable during middle adulthood in study

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