Can Personality Type Predict Dementia?
It’s a puzzle. First, the available evidence linking our personality type to dementia suggests there is a relationship, but the actual mechanism is elusive. Secondly, there are other explanations that can muddy the waters and make it harder to join the dots. In this Sharepost I’m outlining some of the research that points to personality type, particularly the influence of lifelong exposure to life stressors, as a risk factor for dementia.
It’s those relatively enduring characteristics of a person we tend to think of as their personality. In our everyday conversations we’ll refer to people as introverts, extraverts, or as being conscientious, hostile and so forth. These are all ways that help us to describe, understand and which also reflect some of the ways personality is measured.
The most commonly used questionnaire used to assess personality in studies of dementia is the Neuroticism Extraversion Openness Personality Inventory (NEO-PI). There are however relatively few long-duration and carefully controlled studies on the association between personality and dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. What information is available suggests that the risk of Alzheimer’s is 32 percent higher in people who are more prone to psychological distress. These same people tend to have less efficient coping strategies, report higher levels of distress and experience greater numbers of negative life events.
Various studies from different parts of the world have been collated and they point to some interesting outcomes. For example people most prone to psychological distress or cynical distrust may be at higher risk of developing dementia (cynical distrust is the belief that others are motivated by selfish interests). Moreover, in combination with lower extraversion or conscientiousness (reliable, organized, principled) may experience more rapid cognitive decline.
However, despite these interesting and significant associations between personality and dementia there appears to be no evidence linking personality with the development of dementia-related brain conditions such as the presence of tangles and plaques.
What’s left is something of a problem yet to be solved. All the evidence to date points to the fact that people who suffer most from psychological distress have a higher risk of developing dementia. But additional questions remain. For example, is personality as stable as we think? We know that some of the measures of personality tend to change as we age. For example, agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to increase with age while openness may decline. Then there are the physical changes that may occur way before the onset of dementia symptoms can be seen and which may have been influencing personality for some years earlier.
The link between personality and dementia is something worth keeping our eye on and just because a causal mechanism has yet to be found it shouldn’t put us off trying to reduce factors that cause psychological distress and which, in themselves, can lead to ill health.
World Alzheimer’s Report 2014. Dementia and Risk Reduction Analysis of Protective and Modifiable Factors.