Brain and Behavior

Meta-study Explores Personality Traits Linked to Lower Dementia

Have you ever wondered if your personality traits are affecting your risk for dementia—either for the better or the worse?

A new meta-study from a team at the University of California at Davis set out to find the answer by analyzing the data from eight published studies involving more than 44,000 people, including a brain pathology examination after death during autopsies. Here’s what they found.

The “Big Five” Personality Traits

The intention of the study was to investigate associations between the “Big Five” personality traits and eventual dementia.

Originally theorized by D.W. Fiske in 1949, the concept of the “Big Five” identifies five basic dimensions of personality. The model includes these traits:

• Openness to experience: Curiosity, imagination, attunement toward personal emotions, the enjoyment of abstract thinking and ideas

• Conscientiousness: Order, competence, self-discipline, planning, dutifulness, attitude toward achievement

• Extraversion: A measure of outgoingness and sociability; warmth, energy, positive emotions, gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking

• Agreeableness: Ability to empathize with others; attitudes of trustworthiness and goodness of others

• Neuroticism: Emotional instability measured by facets of anxiety, depression, self-consciousness, impulsivity, vulnerability, and angry hostility

Ideally, people should possess a balance of these personality types as leaning too much in either direction can be problematic.

The Findings

The researchers looked positive affect and negative affect, two traits not explicitly part of the Big Five. While negative affect is most closely tied to neuroticism, positive affect is most closely associated with extraversion. They found that:

• Those with personalities that leaned toward conscientiousness, extraversion, and positive affect are LESS likely to develop dementia.

• For people with the above personalities, a REDUCTION in the risk of dementia grew stronger with age.

• Those with personalities which are more characterized by neuroticism and negative affect were MORE likely to develop dementia.

• Although the associations between personality type and dementia were strong, autopsies found NO LINK between personality and pathology.

“We found that a person’s personality traits are not related to whether (or not) they develop the physical pathology that is characteristic of [Alzheimer’s Disease Related Dementias], but that it is related to those clinical manifestations and diagnostic risk,” explains UC-Davis Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Emorie Beck, first author of the study. “This is good news. Even if we can’t necessarily prevent the disease itself, we can possibly mitigate the clinical signs of disease and reduce our odds of cognitive impairment.”

So why would people with high conscientiousness, extraversion and a positive affect be less likely to develop dementia?

As Dr. David A. Merrill, geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center, explains, “[They are] well-suited to adopt what we’ve come to know as common-sense measures for healthy aging, [including] regular exercise, healthy diet, good sleep, low stress, social and cognitively stimulating activities. There may be a cumulative benefit of conscientious living over time. Both by supporting healthy behaviors, but also in avoiding potentially harmful habits or events like drinking to excess or having a head injury from thrill-seeking activities.”

The study was published in the November 29 issues of the journal “Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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