The search for treatments and an overall deeper understanding of Alzheimer’s disease is a priority for medical research. After all, this increasingly widespread and incurable disease is a major health concern for 5.8 million Americans alone according to data from 2020 provided by the CDC. The number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s is projected to triple by 2060, rendering current research and potential treatments even more urgent.
A large study published recently in the journal Biological Psychiatry found an unexpected correlation between symptoms of Alzheimer’s and two personality traits, one of which is said to increase one’s risk of the disease and the other one capable of lowering the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Read on to find out more.
The hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease are amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles. These brain findings are usually detected during brain imaging, and they usually show up in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and cognition. These misfolded proteins appear in-between nerve cells and meddle with normal nerve connections, gradually decreasing the brain’s functioning.
The cause of amyloid plaques and tau tangles remains unknown, but a new study an unexpected correlation between personality traits and one’s likelihood to develop these plaques and tangles. The research paper claims that two specific traits of character - neuroticism, and conscientiousness - seem to increase and lower, respectively, one’s odds of developing these amyloid plaques tau and tangles.
A previous study looked at Alzheimer’s patients and found a similar link to personality traits, but this new research shows concrete brain imaging data and proves that neurotic individuals have a higher likelihood to have amyloid plaques in the brain, and conscientiousness people are less likely to do so.
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Why neuroticism and conscientiousness?
Humans exhibit a wide range of characters traits, far beyond the two mentioned in this article. So why did the researchers choose to focus on neuroticism and conscientiousness specifically? Both of these character traits are part of the Big Five character traits known by mental health to influence one’s physical and mental health and even longevity.
These five character traits are easy to remember through the acronym "OCEAN", and they include:
- Openness - a person’s willingness to participate in new experiences and an inherent curiosity about the world.
- Conscientiousness - a person’s ability to follow rules and achieve goals, responsibility, and attention to detail.
- Extraversion - a need for excitement in life, high energy, many social ties.
- Agreeableness - a person’s ability to treat others in a respectful, compassionate, and non-confrontational manner.
- Neuroticism - describes a sensitive person prone to anxiety and depression.
The Results of the Study
The research in question involved 3,000 adult individuals who participate in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which is a larger project in community-dwelling people. The participants were first presented with a 240-question personality test that assessed their Big Five traits.
A year following the questionnaire, the researchers conducted PET scans to ascertain the absence or presence of tau proteins and amyloid plaques in the brains of the participants. The researchers also completed a thorough review of all previous research on the association between character traits and Alzheimer’s.
The conclusions were unanimous: people with high neuroticism or low conscientiousness have a higher incidence of plaques and tangles, whereas those with low neuroticism and high conscientiousness are the least likely to develop the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. Many of the participants who did develop the amyloid plaques and tangles exhibited no cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease at the time, suggesting that these personality traits alone may be a useful indication in clinical risk assessment.
The remaining three of the Big Five personality traits have also been investigated, but no strong correlations were found.
But why are neurotic people more likely to have these plaques and tangles and conscientious individuals have the lowest risks?
Researchers aren’t quite sure yet, but they believe that this may be due to the lifestyles associated with specific personality traits. Conscientious people tend to live longer because it’s easier for them to follow a healthy lifestyle: have a healthful diet, take medications on time, be physically active, get enough sleep and avoid smoking and other harmful habits. They are also more persistent in achieving their goals and less susceptible to emotional fluctuation.
Neurotic individuals, on the other hand, tend to be more susceptible to stress and succumb to their emotions, be depressed or anxious. All of these lifestyle habits play a huge role in our overall health, dementia and Alzheimer’s risk included.
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