Positive Personality Traits May Protect Against Dementia: Study

3 min read

Dec. 11, 2023 – New research suggests that a person’s personality and outlook on life may affect the risk of being diagnosed with dementia. People with the lowest risk tend to be creative, curious, and agreeable. People with increased risk tend to be anxious, depressed, and frequently experience distressing or negative emotions.

The researchers didn’t find any links between people’s personalities and autopsy results that looked for physical signs of dementia in the brain and nervous system, suggesting that some people may be able to overcome dementia symptoms or compensate for them.

The findings were recently published in the Alzheimer’s Association journal called Alzheimer’s & Dementia. For the study, researchers pooled data from eight previous research projects that included a total of 44,531 people, of whom 1,703 had been diagnosed with dementia. The ages of the people in the analysis ranged from 49 to 81 years old. 

The researchers looked at psychological test results, whether someone was diagnosed with dementia, and also results from neuropathological data, such as from autopsies that examine nerve and brain tissue for signs of dementia.

One of the two psychological tests that the researchers used evaluates what are known as the “big five” personality traits. According to Psychology Today, each person’s personality includes these five traits to varying degrees:

  • Openness to experience, including intellectual curiosity and creative imagination
  • Conscientiousness, which includes tendencies toward organization, productiveness, and responsibility
  • Extroversion, such as sociability and assertiveness
  • Agreeableness, which includes tendencies toward compassion, respectfulness, and trust in others
  • Neuroticism, which includes tendencies toward anxiety and depression

The traits are evaluated by asking people to rate their agreement to dozens of statements, such as “I make friends easily” and “I am impatient.”

In this latest study, researchers found that high scores on neuroticism and low scores on conscientiousness and extroversion were linked to an increased risk of being diagnosed with dementia. They also found that people with high scores for openness to experience and agreeableness were less likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

In addition to the “big five,” the researchers looked for links with a second type of psychological trait know as “subjective well-being,” which includes self-reported measures that indicate how people experience and evaluate their own lives. The three subjective measures in this latest study were:

  • Life satisfaction: thinking and feeling that your life is going well
  • Positive affect: Frequently experiencing positive emotions and moods
  • Negative affect: Frequently experiencing unpleasant and distressing emotions and moods

People with high scores for negative affect were more likely to be diagnosed with dementia, and people with high scores for positive affect had a lower risk. 

It’s common as people age to have subtle changes in memory, thinking, and reasoning skills, but dementia can be diagnosed when severe changes interfere with everyday life. Dementia affects more than 6 million people in the U.S., and that number is expected to nearly triple by 2060, according to the CDC.

Previous studies have linked physical, social, and cognitive engagements to healthier cognitive aging, and evaluating the link between personality and dementia risk could help identify protective patterns. The study authors noted that prior research shows that among people age 75 years and older who have no cognitive signs of dementia, up to one-third of those people have physical signs of brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia. Increased understanding of why some people have cognitive signs of dementia and others do not could help with prevention and treatment.

“Personality is typically thought to be linked to dementia risk through behavior,” reads a summary about the study from the University of California, Davis, citing study author Emorie Beck, PhD, assistant professor of psychology. 

Beck said one example of behavior potentially affecting dementia risk is that people who score high on conscientiousness may be more likely to eat well and take care of their health, which could be protective of a person’s health long-term.