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Certain personality traits protect cognitive function in late life

A new study published by the American Psychological Association has identified certain personality traits that are linked with higher levels of cognitive functioning later in life. 

The experts report that individuals who are organized with more self-discipline are less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as older adults. On the other hand, people who are emotionally unstable are more likely to experience cognitive decline.

The research was focused on the “Big Five” personality traits, including conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion. The experts wanted to investigate the role that these traits play in cognitive functioning later in life.

“Personality traits reflect relatively enduring patterns of thinking and behaving, which may cumulatively affect engagement in healthy and unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns across the lifespan,” said study lead author Dr. Tomiko Yoneda of the University of Victoria. 

“The accumulation of lifelong experiences may then contribute to susceptibility of particular diseases or disorders, such as mild cognitive impairment, or contribute to individual differences in the ability to withstand age-related neurological changes.”

Individuals who are more responsible, organized, hard-working and goal-oriented tend to have higher scores in conscientiousness. People who struggle with mood swings, anxiety, depression, self-doubt and other negative feelings often score high on neuroticism.

Extraverts are individuals who are energized by social engagement. According to Dr. Yoneda, extraverts tend to be enthusiastic, gregarious, talkative and assertive.

To examine the relationship between personality traits and cognitive impairment, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 2,000 participants in the Rush Memory and Aging Project. These participants had received a personality assessment and annual assessments of their cognitive abilities.

The analysis showed that individuals who scored high on conscientiousness or low in neuroticism were substantially less likely to develop cognitive impairment over the course of the study.

“Scoring approximately six more points on a conscientiousness scale ranging 0 to 48 was associated with a 22 percent decreased risk of transitioning from normal cognitive functioning to mild cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Yoneda. “Additionally, scoring approximately seven more points on a neuroticism scale of 0 to 48 was associated with a 12 percent increased risk of transition.”

The experts also found that participants who scored high on extraversion tended to maintain normal cognitive functioning longer than others.

In particular, 80-year-old participants who were high in conscientiousness were estimated to live nearly two years longer without cognitive impairment. Extraversion was associated with healthy cognition for approximately one extra year, while high neuroticism was associated with at least one less year of healthy cognitive functioning. 

Furthermore, individuals lower in neuroticism and higher in extraversion were found to be more likely to recover to normal cognitive function after receiving a previous diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment. This suggests that some personality traits are protective even after an individual starts to progress to dementia. 

The findings highlight the harms associated with the long-term experience of perceived stress and emotional instability, said Dr. Yoneda. He noted that the results on extraversion may be indicative of the benefits of social interaction for improving cognitive outcomes.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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