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  • New research indicates that certain personality traits may be associated with cognitive decline in later life.
  • Neuroticism was linked to a greater risk for cognitive decline.
  • However, conscientiousness and extraversion were associated with less risk.
  • Working to alter these personality traits may be a potential way to help preserve cognitive function.

According to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people with certain personality traits may be more likely to experience cognitive decline as they grow older.

In particular, those who scored higher on a trait called neuroticism were more likely to have reduced cognitive function as they grew older.

However, those who scored higher on traits like conscientiousness and extraversion seemed to fare better.

Lead author Tomiko Yoneda, PhD, who completed the study while she was a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, in conjunction with colleagues at Northwestern University and the University of Edinburgh, looked at three specific personality traits – conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extraversion – and how those traits affect people’s cognitive function as they age.

According to Susan T. Charles, PhD, Professor of Psychological Science and Nursing Science at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study, people who are conscientious are organized, hardworking, and get the job done thoroughly and carefully.

“Basically, if you want a friend to pick up a package for you, or not forget to pick you up at the airport, you choose your most conscientious friend,” said Charles.

Charles said that people who score high on extraversion are usually happier.

“They are also more outgoing, report more energy, and are more sociable,” she said. “You want them at your parties, and to sell you products. They also are good leaders, because they have positive energy.”

Charles said neuroticism is related to self-doubt, depression, and anxiety, as well as emotional lability.

People with this trait can be highly reactive to stressors. For example, if you have a friend who is a “negative Nellie” or a “worrywart,” they may be high in neuroticism, according to Charles.

In order to better understand the relationship between these traits and cognitive decline, the researchers examined data from 1,954 people who were involved in the Rush Memory and Aging Project.

This study looked at older adults residing in the greater Chicago metropolitan area and northeastern Illinois.

Study participants were recruited from senior housing facilities, retirement communities, and church groups, beginning in 1997 and continuing through the present.

None of them had been diagnosed with dementia.

Each person had their personality assessed at the beginning of the study and agreed to receive a cognitive assessment each year thereafter.

Anyone who had received at least two annual cognitive assessments or one assessment prior to their death was included in the analysis.

When the data was examined, it was found that those who either scored high on conscientiousness or low in neuroticism were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as the study progressed.

Extraversion was not significantly linked to the development of mild cognitive impairment, however, it was found that people who scored high on this trait tended to maintain cognitive function the longest.

Also, the data suggested that individuals lower in neuroticism and higher in extraversion were more likely to recover regular cognitive function after receiving a previous diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment

This suggests, according to the authors, that this personality trait may be protective even after a person begins to develop dementia.

The research team did not find any link between these personality traits and total life expectancy.

Yoneda said the link between personality type and risk for cognitive decline may exist because these personality traits can affect a person’s health behaviors across their lifespan.

“For instance,” said Yoneda, “individuals higher in conscientiousness tend to be less likely to engage in risky behaviors (e.g., violence, drug use) and more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors (e.g. physical activity).

Health experts indicate, however, that possessing a particular set of personality traits does not necessarily mean that you are stuck with them. You may be able to alter these traits, possibly helping you to preserve your cognition function.

Yoneda said, “Given the current results, alongside extensive research in the personality field, aiming to increase conscientiousness (e.g through persistent behavior change) is one potential strategy for promoting healthy cognitive aging.”

Charles also feels that this may be possible.

“If you think about it – cognitive-behavioral treatments from clinical psychologists work to change our cognitions (thoughts) and our behaviors. They do so often for people who are depressed or anxious (most common affective disorders), but when you realize that a personality is defined as stable patterns of thoughts and behaviors, then you can apply what we do in clinical psychology to personality,” Charles said.

In order to become more conscientious, she suggests thinking about how this personality trait is characterized: dutiful, organized, and dependable.

“Do you know where your social security card is?” asked Charles. “Is your desk, purse, bag, whatever organized? Do you show up on time for work or when you told your friend you would meet them?”

If you don’t, then she suggests thinking about areas of your life where you are disorganized and to begin working on those.

To become more extraverted, she suggests working at increasing those aspects of your life related to happiness, energy, and sociability.

“Meet people, interact with them and have fun with them. If you have had a long week at work, see your friends on the weekend. It’s worth it,” she said.

Finally, you can become less neurotic, she said, by tackling self-doubt and the automatic thoughts that make you question your self-worth or make you feel sad or anxious.