New Research: Having These Personality Traits Could Protect You From Dementia

Updated: May 22, 2024

While traditional wisdom has long emphasized a healthy lifestyle and mental stimulation as key strategies in warding off dementia, recent research suggests another, more intrinsic factor might be at play.

Dementia, associated with memory loss and cognitive decline, is becoming a more pressing issue as the population ages. While maintaining a healthy lifestyle, staying physically and mentally active, and eating a well-balanced diet are the traditional recommendations for preventing dementia, recent research published in the peer-reviewed Alzheimer’s & Dementia journal in November 2023 brings a compelling new aspect to the table.

The research zeroes in on the impact of personality traits on brain health, mainly focusing on the “big five” traits: Conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, and agreeableness. These traits, which emerged from various studies aimed at categorizing human personality, now form a key framework for understanding character. Now, researchers are exploring how these traits could play a pivotal role in dementia, opening up new possibilities in understanding and potentially combating this devastating disease.

Personality traits and their impact on dementia

“We’ve seen in previous research that if someone is higher in neuroticism, they have higher odds of being clinically diagnosed with dementia, whereas those higher in conscientiousness have lower odds of developing dementia,” says Eileen Graham, PhD, associate professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. This new study builds on that, looking at how these personality traits relate not only to how we think and process information but also to physical changes in the brain associated with dementia.

Researchers examined data from eight studies which included more than 44,000 participants, with 1,703 of those participants eventually being diagnosed with dementia. They concentrated on the “big five” personality traits, and also took into account the participants’ personal wellbeing, encompassing factors such as overall life satisfaction and their general outlook, whether positive or negative.

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Key findings of the research

The study found that individuals with higher levels of negative traits, like neuroticism, or those less inclined towards positive traits, such as conscientiousness and extraversion, face a higher risk of dementia. Conversely, traits like openness, agreeableness, and an overall sense of life satisfaction provide a measure of protection against the disease.

Interestingly, this study suggests that the connection between personality and dementia extends beyond the typical brain changes seen in dementia patients. Emorie Beck, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Davis and the study’s lead author, raises a critical question: “If personality is predictive of performance on cognitive tests but not pathology, what might be happening?” This points to the possibility that certain personality traits enhance an individual’s ability to manage and adapt to cognitive difficulties, even in the presence of brain damage.

As highlighted by Dr. Graham, a big takeaway from the study is the link between neuroticism and a decline in cognitive health. “Neuroticism is related to dementia decline, and people with neuroticism are more prone to anxiousness, moodiness, and worry whereas conscientious people are more likely to exercise, make and go to preventive health appointments and drink less.” This observation suggests that promoting health-conscious habits among individuals displaying these personality traits could be a proactive step towards reducing the risk of dementia.

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