How much does personality determine our health? That question has been pondered, studied and argued over for decades. Most people would say it only makes sense that a certain amount of our physical health will depend on our mental health and our outlook on life, but the concept is extremely difficult to quantify. That elusive quality, however, doesn't keep scientists from trying to put their collective finger on how much it matters.
Washingtonpost.com recently ran an article titled, "Positive Outlook Cuts Chances of Dementia." The article highlights a study by the National Institute on Aging, published in the Jan. 20 issue of Neurology, that adds another layer to the pile of evidence science has been accumulating on how social connections and personality traits affect our health. This particular study concentrates on the chances of a person getting Alzheimer's disease.
The article states that this NIA study found, "People who were both calm and outgoing, with active social lives, were also 50 percent less likely to develop dementia."
Upon reading that sentence, I immediately thought of a man I know slightly, but who has been a very public person in my city. He was a television personality, a comedian, a family man, a public servant and a friend to many. His intelligence and quick wit are legendary among those who know him, or even know of him. And if anyone was outgoing and sociable, it was this man. Yet, he has early on-set Alzheimer's.
I'm aware, however, that I am considering one individual and studies are about statistics and percentages. They are generally done on large groups of people, so there will always be exceptions to the conclusions of any study. Apparently, this man is an exception.
For this study, "Researchers questioned 506 older people about their personality traits and lifestyle, to measure their sociability and disposition to stress." The article quotes a researcher as saying that the people studied were "assessed only at one occasion." They point out that more studies will need to be done to verify this finding that outgoing, sociable people are less likely to get Alzheimer's.
I find it hard to swallow the concept that testing people on only one occasion is enough to determine a person's personality. People have moods. Even positive people have down days. I do believe our mental health and outlook on life affects our health, however.
The NIA is a respected organization that puts out quality studies, so I'll bow to their expertise. Maybe one occasion is enough to judge a personality. It will be interesting to see if future studies result in the same conclusion.
Meanwhile, like exercise and nutrition, our attitude toward life is something we have at least some control over. Trying to stay positive could go on a list of things to get better at. At the very least, our positive attitude should help those around us enjoy our company a little more. And if more studies back up the NIA study, doctors will have one more tool to use when determining who is most at risk for AD.
Published On: January 26, 2009