Alzheimer's and personality traits: What are the risk factors?


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Alzheimer's and personality traits: What are the risk factors?
Alzheimer's and personality traits: What are the risk factors?

With over ten million new cases of Alzheimer's disease reported each year worldwide, this condition remains incurable, and existing treatments only aim to alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Beyond the known risk factors to date, a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry has shed light on the influence of certain personality traits that may either increase the risk of developing the disease or protect against it.

Can Personality Be a Risk Factor for Alzheimer's?

Despite numerous advances in Alzheimer's disease research, which is the most prevalent neurodegenerative disease globally, many unknowns persist. These include the still unexplained causes that trigger the formation of amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles in the brain, characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. Known risk factors identified by professionals include age, low educational attainment, several cardiovascular risk factors, such as untreated hypertension, stroke, diabetes, smoking, alcohol, certain medications, and sleep disorders. Women are also more susceptible to developing Alzheimer's disease than men. A recent study explores a personality factor that could also be linked to a higher risk.

Frequently Experiencing Negative Emotions Creates a Favorable Environment for Alzheimer's

This large-scale study, conducted under the auspices of the National Institute on Aging, an official government website, is part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which has generated hundreds of scientific articles and made major contributions to our understanding of aging and the aging process. For this study, the researchers utilized their representative sample of over 3,000 participants.

In the initial phase of the study, participants were asked to complete a 240-question questionnaire that identified their dominant personality traits among the famous "Big Five" personality traits in psychology since the 1980s:

  1. Conscientiousness characterizes an individual as thorough, cautious, and diligent, with a desire to complete tasks effectively and organized individuals who dislike sloppy work.
  2. Neuroticism refers to individuals who tend to experience negative emotions.
  3. Agreeableness defines a person as polite, kind, and respectful.
  4. Extraversion characterizes someone who readily expresses emotions and easily forms new connections.
  5. Openness defines a curious person, open to others and new experiences.

One year later, in the study's second phase, participants underwent a PET scan to detect the presence of Alzheimer's disease markers, namely amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles in the brain. Finally, the study was complemented by a meta-analysis summarizing the results of 12 studies on the link between Alzheimer's disease and personality traits.

All results led to the same conclusion, showing a correlation between a high neuroticism score and low conscientiousness with a higher presence of amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Conversely, individuals with high levels of conscientiousness or those who steer clear of neuroticism are less likely to develop these markers.

Being Positive and Conscientious May Help Protect Against Alzheimer's

This is not the first time a study has examined a potential link between personality traits and Alzheimer's disease. However, the causative link appears to be more clearly demonstrated here, with neuroticism and conscientiousness playing particularly significant roles. Reverse causality seems unlikely, ruling out the possibility that the observed links are due to personality changes caused by the disease's progression.

It is interesting to note that these results, confirming a connection between personality and Alzheimer's, complement numerous studies emphasizing the importance of sociability and social relationships in reducing risk factors for the disease. Furthermore, the exact reasons behind the link between neuroticism and Alzheimer's and why a high level of conscientiousness seems to protect against it remain unknown. Lifestyle may represent an underlying reason for these results, as conscientious individuals tend to lead healthier lives, including their diet, smoking habits, sleep, and physical activity.

Personality traits are not insignificant and influence a significant part of our reactions, emotional lives, and daily management, which can have an impact on the risk factors for Alzheimer's disease as well as other illnesses.

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