Your Alzheimer’s Risk: The Impact of Personality

People with certain personality traits may have higher risk for AD, but there are strategies that can help.

A recent study adds to evidence that people with specific personality characteristics may be more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD). But interventions designed to change these traits may help lower AD risk.

“Much earlier research on risk factors for AD concentrated on issues such as physical health, educational background, and genetics,” says Joel Pava, PhD, Director of Psycho-therapy Services in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at MGH. “This study is one of several conducted within the past few years that suggests that personality may be a factor that influences an individual’s chances of developing dementia in older age, most likely through its effects on an individual’s lifestyle choices, behavior, and reactions to stressful situations.”

Impact of traits

The study followed 800 middle-aged women who answered questionnaires designed to meas-ure the personality traits of extraversion (outgoingness) and neuroticism (involving a tendency to be easily distressed and to demonstrate characteristics such as moodiness, anxiety, fear, envy, and jealousy). They were also tested periodically on their memory performance. Over a period of 38 years, participants who exhibited the highest levels of neuroticism in midlife were significantly more likely to develop dementia in older age than participants with the lowest levels, according to a report published online Oct. 14, 2014 in Neurology. Results showed that 25 percent of participants who were easily distressed and also introverted (shy rather than outgoing) developed AD. Earlier research has suggested that men and women with the highest levels of neuroticism may be three times more likely to develop AD than those with the lowest levels.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

The following suggestions may help you modify personality traits that put you at higher risk for dementia:

  • Recognize aspects of your personality that frequently lead to feelings of distress, and make an effort to change them.
  • Learn to question the thinking that underlies distressing personality traits. For example, examine feelings of envy by realizing that the accomplishments of others do not diminish your own.
  • Practice gratitude. Focus on the good in your life to help diminish negative thoughts.
  • Seek out others who display positive personality traits. Their attitudes and support may help you replace problem personality traits with those that lead to greater happiness and brain health.

Other recent findings linking personality and AD risk include:

  • A study published online on Oct. 31, 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that the habit of negative thinking is associated with increased AD risk, and that efforts to develop a more positive approach to life might lower that risk.
  • People with high degrees of cynicism appear to be three times more likely to develop dementia than are people with low levels of cynicism, according to research published May 28, 2014 in Neurology, suggesting that interventions that attempt to reduce cynicism might modify AD risk.
  • A study published in the June 2011 issue of Psychology and Aging concluded that the personality traits of openness and conscientiousness are linked to a lower risk for AD.
  • A review published in the March 2014 issue of Alzheimer’s Dementia sup-ports the link between the traits of openness and conscientiousness—and also agreeableness—and lower risk for AD. Neuroticism, and especially a tendency toward depression, was linked to significantly higher AD risk.
  • “Although it is not clear precisely how personality might increase or lower AD risk, it’s reasonable to assume that certain traits have an effect on brain health and functioning,” says Dr. Pava. “For example, neuroticism is associated with higher levels of stress that might trigger inflammation, which may increase the chances of developing significant brain atrophy. In contrast, the trait of openness might encourage a person to be more receptive to new activities that stimulate the brain and help protect against cognitive decline.”

 

Making changes

The good news is that it’s possible to become aware of and modify those aspects of your personality that are linked to increased AD risk, Dr. Pava says. Try to: develop a more mindful approach to distressing thoughts and emotions, observing them with detachment and looking for more positive interpretations of events; become more self-disciplined and conscientious; and open yourself to new experiences that can help stimulate your mind.

“If you continue to struggle with moodiness, cynicism, or other potentially harmful states and traits, consider seeking professional counseling,” he says. “Much can be done to encourage new attitudes and behaviors that will help you feel more positive and help prevent harm to your brain.”

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