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Mental Health Center

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Personality Disorders Can Change With Age

Symptoms Become Better or Worse, Therapy Helps

A Lifetime Study continued...

"We saw massive changes in personality disorder features over just four years," Lenzenweger tells WebMD.

On average, the students showed a significant decline of symptoms from the personality disorder with every passing year, he reports. This was true whether students got treatment from a health care professional or not.

Also, the presence of another mental illness -- such as depression -- did not impact the decrease in personality disorder symptoms, Lenzenweger notes. "People have often thought that people with a personality disorder actually have major depression, which is throwing their personality out of order. But our study showed that presence of major depression didn't affect the decrease in the other symptoms."

This study "highlights that change is possible, and that's good news," he says. "We know that one in 10 people in the U.S. probably suffers from personality disorder. These disorders have a tremendous impact on people's lives. But if the disorders are flexible, then we need to apply newer approaches to treatment. And what's exciting is newer approaches are beginning to appear."

Modified versions of psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are taking the focus off the past and bringing it to "the here and now," Lenzenweger tells WebMD. "In traditional treatment, patients talk about their parents, about their childhood, yet their current life is a wreck. In modified therapy, we focus on how they handled the transaction at the bank, how they dealt with the boss, how they're dealing with their therapist."

Researchers will study this group across their lifespan, he says. "As they now approach their 30s, we are eager to see what their life looks like -- their marital relationships, employment, etc. Are they more impaired, less impaired?"

"This study shows that, while a lot of kids have symptoms of personality disorders, a certain percentage of them may grow out of it. This runs counter to folklore in psychiatry," says Kenneth Levy, PhD, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University in Pittsburgh.

While not involved in the study, Levy offered his insights.

Another important aspect: "It shows that how well people function may be due to environmental events," Levy tells WebMD. "They may have symptoms of a personality disorder, but function relatively well if things are going well in their lives, as long as things are calm. As soon as things erupt, as they do in anyone's life, they may fly off the handle."

"I expect this study to open up more sophisticated research on the effects of stress on personality disorders," he tells WebMD.

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