GENEVA — Here’s the study all you grumps have been waiting for: A truly fascinating new piece of research finds that being just a little stubborn and argumentative may just protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Before you go and pick a fight with the next person who looks at you funny, that lack of agreeability would be most effective if accompanied by a healthy dose or curiosity and an aversion to conformity. According to researchers at the University of Geneva, people with that personality combination showed better preservation of brain areas that usually deteriorate and lose volume during the aging process and lead up to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
The research team had been studying a group of elderly people for several years, through the use of both brain imaging and psycho-cognitive evaluations, to make this discovery. They had theorized that certain personality traits may be able to protect the brain against degeneration, and were proven correct.
These are truly groundbreaking results; for decades scientists have been trying to develop an effective vaccine against Alzheimer’s that would reverse and repair the neural damage done by excessive levels of amyloid, a small protein long believed to the catalyst for Alzheimer’s. Now, this new research suggests that non-biological means, like personality, may be able to help mitigate one’s dementia risk.
“Between the destruction of the first neurons and the appearance of the first symptoms, 10 to 12 years elapse”, says Professor Panteleimon Giannakopoulos, a psychiatrist with the university’s Faculty of Medicine, in a statement. “For a long time, the brain is able to compensate by activating alternative networks; when the first clinical signs appear, however, it is unfortunately often too late. The identification of early biomarkers is therefore essential for an effective disease management.”
‘Unpleasant’ people have better brains?
This study could totally reshape the way neuropsychiatric disorders are approached, and help create new, novel treatment options.
A large group of people, all over the age of 65, were initially recruited for the study. Then, the field was narrowed to 65 participants, both men and women, who were examined multiple times over the course of five years.
“In order to get as complete a picture as possible, we decided to look at the non-lesional determinants of brain damage, i.e. the environment, lifestyle and psychology,” says Professor Giannakopoulos. “So we conducted cognitive and personality assessments.”
The subsequent findings were astounding. In short, people who are “unpleasant,” unafraid of conflict, and resist conformity, appear to have better protected brains. Moreover, this protective property resides exactly where Alzheimer’s is known to take root in memory circuits.
“A high level of agreeableness characterizes highly adaptive personalities, who want above all to be in line with the wishes of others, to avoid conflict, and to seek cooperation”, Professor Giannakopoulos notes. “This differs from extraversion. You can be very extroverted and not very pleasant, as are narcissistic personalities, for example. The important determinant is the relationship to the other: do we adapt to others at our own expenses?”
An openness to new experiences also displayed a protective effect, albeit not as prominently as the other traits.
“This is less surprising, as we already knew that the desire to learn and interest in the world around us protects against cerebral aging,” he comments.
As far as why these specific traits have this effect, the study’s authors remain in the dark. However, they believe they’ve taken an important step in better understanding dementia as a whole and effectively treating it.
“If it seems difficult to profoundly change one’s personality, especially at an advanced age, taking this into account in a personalized medicine perspective is essential in order to weigh up all the protective and risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease. It is an important part of a complex puzzle,” the study concludes.
The study is published in Neurobiology of Aging.
This article was first published on March 14, 2020.