Study finds association between personality traits and risk of cognitive decline later in life

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A recent study suggested that people with high levels of self-discipline and organization were less likely to experience cognitive decline as they aged than those prone to unstable moods and emotions.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was led by Tomiko Yoneda, PhD, of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. The investigation aimed to understand how three personality traits, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extraversion impacted cognition later in life. Yoneda and her team of researchers analyzed data from 1,954 participants from a longitudinal study of older adults living in greater Chicago. The study, named the Rush Memory and Age Project, recruited older adults from community churches and retirement homes without a formal diagnosis of dementia. It began in 1997 and continues to this day. Participants underwent a personality assessment to start and then receive annual testing of their cognitive abilities. Using a scale, researchers determined participants’ levels of self-motivation (conscientiousness), neuroticism (emotional stability), and sociability (extraversion).

The results suggested that participants who scored high on the conscientiousness scale or low in neuroticism had a significantly lower risk of developing cognitive impairment as they aged.

“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 Yoneda in a statement. “Additionally, scoring approximately seven more points on a neuroticism scale of 0 to 48 was associated with a 12 percent increased risk of transition.”

Researchers found no association between levels of extraversion and cognitive function later in life. However, those who scored high on conscientiousness or low in neuroticism along with high on extraversion maintained normal cognitive function longer than others in the study. Researchers also observed that those with lower neuroticism and higher extraversion were more likely to recover from a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, indicating these traits not only help prevent cognitive decline but also could help patients overcome it.

This study suggests that certain personality traits can dictate one’s risk of cognitive decline as they age. According to researchers, this study was limited in that most subjects were white, highly educated, and females, and additional research is still needed on this subject.