Since Alzheimer’s disease is known to cause structural changes within the brain well before the first symptoms of memory loss appear, the disease can also result in changes to one’s personality.
But researchers have long wondered, can it also happen the other way around? Can your personality predict your risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s? It seems unlikely on the surface, and yet a major new study suggests that your personality does in fact matter.
Antonio Terracciano, professor of geriatrics at Florida State University, has been investigating personality traits and their link to health and disease for many years.
In a study he led, published in 2013, participants who died were checked at autopsy for signs of Alzheimer’s pathology. It’s important to point out that signs of Alzheimer’s disease occur not only in those diagnosed with the condition, but in 30 percent of cognitively normal older individuals. In addition to the autopsy, the research team examined data on the deceased’s personality going back as far as 28 to 30 years before death.
Of the five main personality traits, two accounted for a sizable increase in risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Five Major Personality Types
In the 1970s two research teams led by Paul Costa and Robert R. McCrae of the National Institutes of Health examined surveys of thousands of people and discovered that most human character traits can be described using five categories. They include:
- Conscientiousness: Being responsible, careful, goal- and detail- oriented, organized and exhibiting high impulse control.
- Agreeableness: Being respectful, compassionate, trusting, and cooperative.
- Neuroticism: Being more likely to suffer unsettling emotions – stress, anxiety, depression.
- Openness: Being curious, creative, and open to new experiences.
- Extraversion: Being active, highly sociable and seeking excitement.
Professor Terracciano’s findings showed that people who experienced higher degrees of neuroticism or scored lower for conscientiousness were less likely to remain symptom free in the presence of Alzheimer’s pathology. Let’s take a closer look at his research.
Higher Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
In 2017 professor Terracciano and his colleagues wanted to test whether personality changes begin before the clinical onset of mild cognitive impairment or dementia. After analyzing 2,046 older adults for up to 36 years, they could find no evidence for this, and suggested that their findings “strengthen evidence for personality traits as a risk factor for dementia” rather than a change in personality occurring because of dementia.
His latest study delved even deeper into the personality-Alzheimer’s link by conducting brain scans.
The new study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in September, combined two investigations that included over 3,000 cognitively normal participants.
In the first, participants completed a 240-item personality questionnaire that was followed within a year by a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to look for amyloid and tau proteins in the brain (proteins that are often seen in Alzheimer’s sufferers).
After considering influencing factors such as age, gender, education, depressive symptoms, volume of the hippocampus (a key memory area of the brain) and APOE ε4 (a genetic risk factor), professor Terracciano and his team confirmed the results of their previous analysis.
The personality trait neuroticism was linked to a buildup of amyloid protein that was 68 percent higher. Meanwhile, the personality trait of conscientiousness was linked to a 39 percent lower risk of amyloid buildup. Similar associations with these personality traits were shown for tau protein.
In a separate study of 1,671 volunteers that researchers followed for 22 years, those scoring the highest for neuroticism and the lowest for conscientiousness had a three-fold increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
What’s more, professor Terracciano and his team reviewed 12 existing studies on the personality-Alzheimer’s connection together with amyloid or tau pathology. These also backed up their findings, with more amyloid or tau proteins found in those folks with higher neuroticism or lower conscientiousness personality traits.
These findings beg the question…
Why Do These Traits Impact Alzheimer’s Risk?
Professor Terracciano explained, saying, “This study shows that even before clinical dementia, personality predicts the accumulation of pathology associated with dementia.”
Perhaps most interesting, these associations were found to be stronger in cognitively normal people compared to studies that included people with already existing cognitive problems.
“Such protection against neuropathology,” professor Terracciano added, “may derive from a lifetime difference in people’s emotions and behaviors. For example, past research has shown that low neuroticism helps manage stress and reduces the risk of common mental health disorders.
“Similarly, high conscientiousness is consistently related to healthy lifestyles, like physical activity. Over time, more adaptive personality traits can better support metabolic and immunological functions and ultimately prevent or delay neurodegeneration processes.”
I’ve always believed that our emotional and mental health and behavior can dramatically impact our health—for good or bad. What’s more, if you happen to measure high in the personality traits linked to Alzheimer’s disease, don’t despair. Knowledge is power and you can now feel motivated to make conscious choices to healthfully manage emotions such as stress and anxiety.
If you don’t know which personality traits you exhibit from the big five, you can take a free quiz here. https://www.outofservice.com/bigfive/