Surprising Alzheimer’s Causes: Lack of Exercise, Unhealthy Diet, and Personality Could All Play a Role

Unexpected Alzheimer’s Causes: Could Personality Play a Part?

Researchers don’t yet know what exactly causes Alzheimer’s disease, a disease characterized by plaque build up in the brain. In most cases, they believe that changes in the brain that occur throughout the lifetime due to lifestyle, genetic, and environmental factors contribute to the disease.

But the good news is, there is a lot you can do to lower your risk. There are plenty of effective, easy, natural health strategies for keeping your brain healthy and preventing neurodegeneration. Learn about some of the surprising Alzheimer’s causes below, and about strategies for preventing and treating the disease.

Suspected Alzheimer’s causes

In a small subset of cases, Alzheimer’s is caused by genetic factors. But there is a long list of other factors that are suspected to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease development, too. These include:

  • Low physical activity level
  • Being overweight or obese
  • High blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Uncontrolled type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy dietary patterns
  • Low social and intellectual engagement throughout the lifetime
  • Past trauma to the head and brain

Women seem to be at a higher risk than men, and people with a family history are also more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease.

Can personality play a part?

But it isn’t just your habits and health status that can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.    Certain personality traits at midlife can also increase your risk for the disease.

The Big Five personality traits

In psychology, the Big Five personality traits describe five broad areas of personality.[1]

  • Neuroticism is characterized by a tendency to be distressed or anxious. Neurotic people do not manage stress well and have difficulty controlling impulses.
  • Openness to experience describes the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and preference for new experiences and variety. Open people like to learn, and they pursue novelty in the form of education, ideas, art, emotions, and sensations.
  • Conscientiousness describes the tendency to be organized, self-disciplined, and dependent. It refers to the ability to plan ahead, work towards goals, and delay gratification.
  • Extraversion refers to preference for social interaction. It also describes people who tend to have positive emotions and pursue pleasure.
  • Agreeableness is the tendency to be compassionate and cooperative with others, with agreeable people tending to be helpful, trusting, and well tempered.

Everyone tends towards one or more of these personality traits. So which of these serve as risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease?

Personality traits linked to Alzheimer’s disease

A recent study in the journal Neurology followed 800 women, aged 38 to 54 for 38 years. They assessed personality traits using a questionnaire and tested each woman for dementia five times throughout the study. They found that a higher degree of neuroticism in midlife was associated with a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s later in life. While extraversion did not show an impact on Alzheimer’s incidence on its own, a combination of high neuroticism and low extraversion resulted in the highest risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.[2]

While this was one of the biggest studies of its kind, the results can only be applied to women. Previous studies investigating this subject in both genders, however, have also found neuroticism to be a major factor. One found that people scoring highest in neuroticism had a threefold risk of Alzheimer’s compared to those scoring lowest in neuroticism.[3] Researchers also have found that people who are more conscientiousness, open, and agreeable might have a reduced risk.[1,3,4]

How personality might contribute to disease

So how can a personality trait affect your risk for Alzheimer’s disease? Certain personality traits might affect lifestyle choices, as well as physiologic processes, and thus raise or lower your risk for disease.

Neuroticism is associated with changes in the brain, including atrophy to certain areas.[4] It also is linked to inflammation, as well problems with the stress response in the brain.[1] Highly neurotic people are also more likely to be stressed, become depressed, smoke cigarettes, be physically inactive, and become obese, all of which can raise your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.[3]

On the other hand, some personality traits might help to protect you against neurodegenerative diseases. Openness is associated with increased cognitive activity and intellectual engagement. Have you ever heard that the brain loves variety? People who engage in activities that stimulate the brain, whether by reading books, doing a puzzle, or trying new activities, tend to have a lower risk of dementia and cognitive decline.[1,3,4] Conscientious people tend to live longer; these people likely focus more on medical advice and do a better job of following healthy lifestyles.[1,4]

Prevention and treatment

These findings do not suggest that a neurotic personality causes Alzheimer’s disease, and having a certain combination of personality traits does not mean that you will definitely develop the disease. Instead, this new research might help you to understand whether you are at a higher risk for the disease and allow you to take extra preventative measures to keep your brain healthy.

First, try to identify which personality traits describe you best. Do you tend to worry and stress out a lot? Do you have a hard time sticking to your exercise regimen? Do you follow a regular daily routine and rarely stimulate your brain with new ideas or experiences? Make a goal for yourself, whether it is trying to read a new book regularly, exercise more, play brain games, or meditate on a daily basis to control your stress.

If you believe to be at an increased risk due to some of the risk factors discussed above, you’ll want to look into natural strategies for preventing and fighting cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Visit our section on Cognitive Decline and Memory Issues for information on Alzheimer’s causes and preventative tools like supplements, dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, and more.

Share your experience

Which of the five personality traits best describes you? Do you have ideas for living a less neurotic, more open, conscientious, and agreeable lifestyle? What other tips do you have for preventing cognitive decline and dementia? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


[1] Psychol Aging. 2011 Jun;26(2):351-62.

[2] Neurology. 2014 Oct 21;83(17):1538-44.

[3] Alzheimers Dement. 2014 Mar;10(2):179-86.

[4] Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2013 Aug;21(8):713-28.

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UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

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