(ORDO NEWS) — Specific personality traits may be associated with a risk of developing cognitive problems later in life, a new study says, and this, in turn, could point to better ways to treat problems like dementia.
The study involved 1,954 volunteers without an official diagnosis of dementia, who completed personality questionnaires and compared them with data on health status and any cognitive problems with age.
Curiously, organized and self-disciplined people were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, while neurotics were more prone to it.
Because this was a correlational study, it’s not clear if fundamental aspects of biology underlie this relationship, but the researchers have their suspicions.
“Personality traits reflect relatively stable patterns of thought and behavior that can collectively influence participation in healthy and unhealthy patterns of behavior and thought throughout life,” says psychologist Tomiko Yoneda from the University of Victoria in Canada.
“The accumulation of life experience may then contribute to a predisposition to certain diseases or disorders, such as mild cognitive impairment, or contribute to individual differences in the ability to withstand age-related neurological changes.”
Personality traits are usually classified into the so-called “big five” which includes agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extraversion. In this particular study, the latter three were examined.
Consciousness covers such features as responsibility, organization, diligence and purposefulness. Those who scored high on a conscientiousness scale of 0-48 were less likely to develop impairment—a 6-point increase on the scale was associated with a 22 percent reduction in risk.
Those who do not score high on the neuroticism scale tend to be more emotionally stable and less prone to depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. A low neuroticism score corresponds to a lower risk of cognitive impairment later in life, with a 7 point increase on the neuroticism scale (0-48) corresponding to a 12 percent increase in risk.
No association was found between extraversion and risk of impairment – although extraverts tended to retain normal cognitive functioning longer during their lifetime if they also had high conscientiousness or low neuroticism.
Extraversion includes traits such as assertiveness, enthusiasm for social interaction, and directing energy towards people.
“The analysis showed that all three personality traits were associated to varying degrees with longevity without compromising cognitive health, especially in women, but personality traits were not associated with overall longevity,” the researchers wrote in the published paper.
The team did not find any relationship between personality traits and lifespan, and the study does not suggest that these characteristics are the cause of cognitive impairment – only that there is some relationship worth exploring in future studies.
Researchers have reported similar results before, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about how important these personality traits are in terms of the timing of cognitive problems, and how many years certain characteristics can delay them.
Although this study used almost 2,000 people as a sample, it was dominated by whites (87 percent) and women (74 percent of participants). Future research could improve these results by examining participant groups that are both larger and more diverse.
“These results provide new insights into the simultaneous associations between personality traits and transitions between categories of cognitive status and death, as well as cognitive health and overall lifespan,” the researchers wrote.
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