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Certain personality traits lower the risk of dementia

A new study led by the University of California, Davis has revealed significant insights into how personality traits might influence the risk of developing dementia

The analysis suggests that individuals with certain personality traits are less likely to receive a dementia diagnosis.

Focus of the study 

“The incidence of dementia due to neurodegenerative diseases has increased substantially over the past half-century along with increases in life expectancy, contributing to an expansive economic burden and disability,” wrote the study authors.

“Identifying modifiable risk factors that influence individual differences in cognitive aging processes is critical to researchers, policymakers, and the public.” 

“While research suggests that the Big Five personality traits and subjective well-being (SWB) are associated with dementia diagnosis, limited research has examined traits or SWB as predictors of underlying dementia neuropathology.”

Key insights

The experts found that traits like conscientiousness, extraversion, and positive affect can act as protective factors against dementia. By contrast, individuals with high levels of neuroticism and negative affect appear to be at a greater risk. 

This correlation, as the research points out, is not due to physical brain tissue damage typically observed in dementia patients. Instead, it seems that certain personality traits might enable individuals to better manage or navigate the impairments associated with dementia.

Unique approach 

Emorie Beck, assistant professor of Psychology at UC Davis and the first author of the paper, emphasized the novelty of this research. Previous studies exploring the link between personality traits and dementia risk were limited in scope, often focusing on small, specific populations. Beck and her team sought to expand this research horizon by using new technology.

“We wanted to leverage new technology to synthesize these studies and test the strength and consistency of these associations,” said Beck. 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, she said.

How the research was conducted 

The comprehensive analysis included data from eight published studies, encompassing over 44,000 individuals, out of whom 1,703 developed dementia. 

The research team examined the “big five” personality traits – conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, and agreeableness – alongside measures of subjective wellbeing like positive and negative affect and life satisfaction. 

These traits were then compared to clinical dementia symptoms and brain pathology assessed post-mortem.

Surprising discovery 

Interestingly, the researchers discovered that while certain personality traits correlated with dementia risk, they did not correspond to the neuropathology observed in the brains of deceased patients. 

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

The experts theorize that some personality traits might confer resilience against the cognitive impairments caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s, enabling individuals to cope with and adapt to these impairments more effectively.

Study implications 

The researchers also explored various factors that could moderate the relationship between personality traits and dementia risk, such as age, gender, and educational attainment. Notably, it was found that the protective effect of conscientiousness increased with age.

The research marks a significant step in understanding non-genetic factors contributing to dementia development. 

The team plans to continue and expand upon this work. In future research, the experts plan to investigate individuals who exhibit minimal cognitive impairment despite significant brain pathology and to explore other everyday factors that might influence dementia risk.

The work was supported by the National Institute on Aging.

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

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