23 January 2009

Study of personality types and risk of dementia

Personality and lifestyle in relation to dementia incidence
Dementia News (Alzheimer's Australia): 23 January 2009
Those of us who are out-going, have active and integrated social lives, and do not get easily stressed seem to be at less risk of developing dementia than those who are highly anxious and socially isolated. Whether or not aspects of personality really do put individuals at risk of developing dementia is one of the questions being addressed in the Kungsholmen Project, a long-term population study in Sweden.

Dr Wang from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm headed a team of researchers seeking to determine whether there was an association between personality type, lifestyle, and the risk of developing dementia. The team studied data from a group of 506 older people who had been taking part in the Kungsholmen Project for a number of years. Each had been categorised into personality type through the Eysenck Personality Inventory.

According to the Eysenck model:
  • Extraversion is characterised by a tendency to be socially outgoing and to express feelings and impulses freely.
  • Introversion is characterised by a preference for solitary activities and a tendency to inhibit impulses.
  • Neuroticism is characterised by traits such as nervousness, moodiness, and oversensitivity to negative stimuli.
Different combinations of extraversion/introversion/neuroticism or lack of neuroticism make up different personality types. For example, an introverted–neurotic personality is characterised
by moodiness, anxiety, rigidity, sobriety, pessimism, reserve, quietness, and antisocial feelings while an extraverted–neurotic personality is characterised by touchiness, restlessness, aggression, excitability, changeability, impulsiveness, optimism, and activeness.

Dr Wang and his team found that some personality types appeared to be at lower risk of developing dementia than others.

They found that:
  • People who were either highly neurotic or introverted were at low risk.
  • People who were inactive or socially isolated but who had low levels of neuroticism were also at low risk.
  • Highly extraverted people with low levels of neuroticism were at less risk than people who were both highly extraverted and highly neurotic.
  • Both introverted people with low levels of neuroticism, and introverted people with high levels of neuroticism were at greater risk than highly neurotic and highly extraverted people.
Of all personality types, those people who were highly extraverted with low levels of neuroticism had the lowest risk of developing dementia.

Dementia is a complex set of conditions influenced by many factors. The interesting findings in Dr Wang’s study appear worthy of testing in larger study populations to explore whether the findings hold and, if they do, to try to discover how personality traits act at the physiological level to increase or decrease an individual’s risk of developing dementia. It would also be of value to explore this question using methods other than the Eysenck Personality Inventory to determine personality traits.

The study is published in the journal Neurology 72: 253-259

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