Ironically, a new study finds that if you’re perpetually worried about developing dementia or Alzheimer’s later on in life, you just might be more susceptible to cognitive decline.
The research, conducted at Northwestern University, has come to several astounding conclusions regarding the influence of personality on dementia symptoms.
In short, people who are naturally anxious, neurotic, and prone to constant worry tend to experience more intense symptoms in the event of dementia onset. Conversely, older adults with more self-discipline and diligence appear to have more cognitive resilience when faced with a dementia diagnosis.
So, to be clear, these findings have nothing to do with the likelihood of developing dementia. Instead, the research team focused on how different personality types influence one’s cognitive resilience. This refers to how well a person can function despite dementia-related changes in the brain (neuropathology).
Over time, our minds tend to accumulate sticky plaques and proteins that build up and eventually interfere with thought processes, memory, and cognition. In very simple terms, this is how dementia and Alzheimer’s starts. This process of plaque buildup on the brain is, generally speaking, referred to as neuropathology.
Some older adults, though, can function much better than others with the same level of neuropathology. This is what the study’s authors set out to investigate. What role does personality and temperament play in cognitive resilience fluctuations among dementia patients?
In short, it looks like personality matters a whole lot. Studied older adults who were more organized, motivated, self-disciplined, and high-achieving showed robust resistance to the effects of psychopathology.
On the other end of the spectrum, adults who were more anxious, moody, worrisome, and impulsive were more likely to have worse cognitive functioning. Furthermore, people with this type of personality even showed more extreme levels of cognitive decline than doctors were expecting based on the amount of neuropathology their brains showed.
Depending on the individual, these findings may be either uplifting or defeating. No one gets to pick their personality, and it’s safe to say everyone would be more disciplined and self-assured if it was as simple as flipping a switch. Changing ingrained behaviors is easier said than done, though, and many people spend their entire lives trying to overcome overwhelming feelings of anxiety and worry.
But, that doesn’t mean these findings are all doom and gloom for the neurotic among us. First off it’s difficult, but not impossible, to change one’s personality. Moreover, the study’s authors believe these findings could help identify people at risk of serious dementia earlier in life, and consequently help them adopt healthier thinking patterns.
“Our study shows personality traits are related to how well people are able to maintain their cognitive function in spite of developing neuropathology,” explains lead study author Eileen Graham, a research assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Since it is possible for personality to change, both volitionally and through interventions, it’s possible that personality could be used to identify those who are at risk and implement early interventions to help optimize function throughout old age.”
The data that made this research possible was originally collected by the Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Each dementia patient who contributed to this work had sent in psychosocial self-report surveys once a year for several years describing their psychological state and cognitive functioning. Every participating adult also consented to an autopsy after passing away, which is how researchers were able to determine how much neuropathology each person was dealing with right up until their death.
“These findings provide evidence that it is possible for older adults to live with the neuropathology associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias while maintaining relatively healthy levels of cognitive function,” Graham adds.
Stress, anxiety, and worry take a tremendous toll on the human body from a purely physical standpoint. It’s common knowledge that constant stress can quickly turn hairs gray, for example. These findings confirm the same can be said of the mind; your day-to-day attitudes and approach to life influence how your brain ages and deals with age-related changes.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.