A positive personality may be all you need to prevent dementia

People who display high conscientiousness or are extraverts are also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

DAVIS, Calif. — A positive attitude may be all you need to avoid Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists at the University of California Davis and Northwestern University report that people who exhibit personality traits like conscientiousness, extraversion, and positivity are less likely to develop dementia in comparison to others who display neuroticism and negativity.

Conscientiousness, which scientists consider a fundamental personality trait, features qualities like:

  • Organization
  • Responsibility
  • Setting goals
  • Following rules
  • Being a hard worker

Meanwhile, happy people who display the trait researchers refer to as “positive affect” are joyful, energetic, and exhibit strong concentration.

Those with “negative affect” usually display signs of nervousness, distress, and anger. Neuroticism is yet another fundamental personality trait, defined as a predisposition toward anxiety, depression, and self-consciousness.

Study authors were careful to note that these differences among personality types did not have a link to physical damage to brain tissue found in dementia patients. Instead, the findings are more likely to have an association with how certain personality traits help people navigate dementia-related impairments.

While prior studies have tried to establish links between personality traits and dementia in the past, those earlier projects were mostly small and represented only specific populations, explains study first author Emorie Beck, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Davis.

“We wanted to leverage new technology to synthesize these studies and test the strength and consistency of these associations,” Prof. Beck says in a media release. “If those links hold up, then targeting personality traits for change in interventions earlier in life could be a way to reduce dementia risk in the long term.”

Personality test - introverts, extroverts
(© Olivier Le Moal – stock.adobe.com)

Researchers analyzed data from eight published studies, including over 44,000 people, of whom 1,703 eventually developed dementia. They assessed measures of the “big five” personality traits (conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, and agreeableness) and subjective well-being (positive and negative affect, life satisfaction) in comparison to clinical symptoms consistent with dementia (performance on cognitive tests) and brain pathology at autopsy.

Scientists typically think personality has a link to dementia risk through behavior, Prof. Beck notes. For instance, those who scored high for conscientiousness may be more likely to eat healthier and take better care of themselves, which would subsequently result in better long-term health.

Study authors say high scores for negative traits (neuroticism, negative affect) and lower scores for positive traits (conscientiousness, extraversion, positive affect) did have an association with a higher risk for dementia diagnosis. High scores on openness to experience, agreeableness, and life satisfaction, however, actually showed a protective effect within a smaller subset of studies.

Researchers were surprised, though, to see no link whatsoever between these personality traits and actual neuropathology in the brains of people after death.

“This was the most surprising finding to us,” Prof. Beck explains. “If personality is predictive of performance on cognitive tests but not pathology, what might be happening?”

Dementia, Alzheimer's, brain puzzle
More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million. (© Orawan – stock.adobe.com)

One possible explanation is that certain personality traits make people more resilient to the damage incurred by diseases like Alzheimer’s. Those exhibiting these traits may find ways, whether consciously or not, of coping with and working around impairments. Additional work by members of the study team confirmed certain people with quite extensive pathology can show little impairment on cognitive tests.

Researchers were also sure to look at other factors that may moderate the relationship between personality, dementia risk, and neuropathology, including age, gender, and educational attainment.

“We found almost no evidence for effects, except that conscientiousness’s protective effect increased with age,” Prof. Beck concludes.

Numerous factors can contribute to the development of dementia, many of which aren’t related to genetics. This work is a crucial first step toward better understanding the associations between personality and dementia, Prof. Beck explains. Moving forward, researchers want to expand their studies to include people who show little impairment in the face of a lot of pathology. They also would like to analyze other everyday factors potentially playing a role in developing dementia.

The study is published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

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