How ‘The Big Five’ Personality Traits Are Linked To Dementia Risk

Specific personality traits may increase or decrease a person’s risk of dementia, a study has found.

Not all psychologists agree on how many personality traits there are and how they should be labeled. However, five dimensions of personality are widely accepted by many contemporary personality psychologists, and they’re known as “The Big Five Personality Traits.” They are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion (sometimes spelled as extroversion), agreeableness, and neuroticism. They can be easily remembered by using the acronym OCEAN. Each of these traits represent a range between two extremes, and while people can score very high or low in each area, most people are somewhere in the middle.

The Big Five are the traits researchers focused on for this study. They analyzed the link between each of these five personality traits and two pre-dementia conditions: motoric cognitive risk (MCR) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCR usually presents as a slowed or interrupted gait and cognitive issues. Those with MCI usually experience a small but significant decline in cognitive capabilities like memory and thinking skills; they have minor difficulties with cognition that aren’t significant enough to warrant dementia but are declining more than they should be.

In particular, two of the personality traits had an effect on dementia risk: openness and neuroticism.

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Here are brief explanations of each trait according to Verywell:

Openness reflects how much imagination, curiosity, and insight a person has, and people who score high in this area typically have a variety of interests while people who score low are typically more traditional in their thinking.

Conscientiousness reflects a person’s thoughtfulness, impulse control, and goal-directed behaviors, and people who score high tend to be detail-oriented and plan ahead while people who score low are less mindful and don’t think about the effect of their actions on others.

Extraversion reflects a person’s excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and ability to express their emotions, and people who score high tend to become energized by being around other people while those who score low can find social events draining and need time alone to recharge.

Agreeableness reflects behaviors like trust, kindness, and affection, and people who score high tend to be cooperative while those who score low can be competitive or even manipulative.

Neuroticism reflects a person’s level of “negative” emotions, like anxiety, depression, and emotional volatility. A person who scores high in this area may experience mood swings and intense feelings, while those who score low are generally more stable and emotionally strong.

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The study is titled “The Effect of Personality Traits on Risk of Incident Pre‐dementia Syndromes” and was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Researchers studied 524 people who were 65 years old or older and lived in Westchester County, New York. None of the participants had dementia when the study began, and 62% of the participants were women. (Alzheimer’s disproportionately affects women, with females comprising almost two-thirds of Americans who live with dementia.)

For the study, participants attended a research center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They underwent cognitive, psychological, and mobility tests and also filled out a form about their personality traits.

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Three years later, researchers followed up with the participants. They found that 38 of them had developed motoric cognitive risk (MCR) and 69 had developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Two personality traits in particular — openness and neuroticism — were found to have the biggest effect on dementia risk. High scores of neuroticism were associated with a 6% increased risk of non-amnestic MCI. (Non-amnestic MCI means that the person still has their memory but other cognitive abilities like language or visual-spatial skills are in decline.)

On the other hand, high levels of openness were associated with a 6% reduced risk of developing MCR.

Researchers found no link between any of the personality traits and amnestic MCI or MCI overall.

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The link between personality traits and dementia does not answer why they are associated with each other. Are these particular personality traits an indication of dementia, or do they cause dementia? The researchers can’t say definitively.

“These findings provide preliminary evidence of personality traits as predictors of pre-dementia syndromes in aging, and they raise the possibility that personality traits play an independent role in the risk for or protection against particular pre-dementia syndromes,” the authors wrote.

The study was limited in several ways, like a short follow-up time and participants who were not ethnically diverse. However, previous studies did not observe race/ethnicity having an effect on the link between personality traits and dementia.

“From a clinical perspective, these findings emphasize the importance of accounting for aspects of personality when assessing for dementia risk,” said co-author Emmeline Ayers.

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