A recent analysis by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Northwestern University has found that individuals displaying certain personality traits have a decreased likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia compared to those with a different set of traits. These traits include conscientiousness, extraversion, and positive affect as less likely indicators of dementia compared to neuroticism and negative affect. According to the study, these differences in diagnosis are not due to physical damage to brain tissues found in dementia patients, but rather linked to how certain personality traits help individuals deal with dementia-related impairments. Published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, the study challenges the status quo and makes a strong case for the influence of personality traits on dementia amongst the larger population, factoring in the difference associated with various personality traits.
The study’s lead author, Emorie Beck, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Davis, voiced that previous research studying the connection between personality traits and dementia has been limited to small sample sizes and specific populations. However, this new analysis combines data from over eight different studies, including reports on more than 44,000 individuals. From this comprehensive data set, results showed a clear association between personality traits and dementia risk—individuals with negative affect and neuroticism were more susceptible to dementia diagnoses, in contrast to those with more positive traits.
The study also examined how the participants’ performance on cognitive tests and brain pathology at autopsy were influenced by the “big five” personality traits. Although the results did not show a direct link between these traits and brain pathology, high scores on negative traits were shown to increase the risk of a dementia diagnosis. The researchers suggest that targeting personality traits for change through intervention earlier in life could significantly impact dementia risk in the long term. Nevertheless, the exact ways in which these personality traits influence dementia diagnosis remain unclear, opening the door for further exploration.
What surprised the researchers is that even though patients displayed personality traits predictive of cognitive test results, no direct link was found between these traits and the neuropathology in the brains of people who have already passed. Nonetheless, researchers are considering the possibility that some personality traits could make individuals more resilient to the damage caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s. This is consistent with the team’s other findings that show how people with extensive brain damage may show little impairment on cognitive tests due to certain personality traits.
An interesting point to note is that overall and various factors including age, gender, and educational attainment do not moderate the relationship between personality and dementia risk and neuropathology, except for the protective effect of conscientiousness increasing with age. In conclusion, the study is described as a first step in untangling the associations between personality and dementia. The researchers are optimistic that they will continue with and expand their efforts to better understand the relationship between personality and dementia risk as well as the role of other everyday factors that might contribute to the development of the condition.