Negativity, disorganization linked to Alzheimer's risk

Study finds neuroticism and low conscientiousness increase chance of developing devastating brain diseases.

Maija Kappler 3 minute read October 14, 2021
alzheimer's personality study

A new study looked at the neuropathy behind the illness. (Getty)

A new study has found that Alzheimer’s disease may be easier to detect early in people with specific personality traits.

Research from the Florida State University College of Medicine found that people with high levels of neuroticism and low levels of conscientiousness had more deposits of the proteins that build up in Alzheimer’s patients. “Higher neuroticism and lower conscientiousness are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, but the underlying neuropathological correlates remain unclear,” the study states.

“We have done studies showing who’s at risk of developing dementia, but those other studies were looking at the clinical diagnosis,” Antonio Terracciano, professor of geriatrics at the university, told FSU’s news outlet. “Here, we are looking at the neuropathology; that is, the lesions in the brain that tell us about the underlying pathological change. This study shows that even before clinical dementia, personality predicts the accumulation of pathology associated with dementia.”

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, was a meta-analysis that summarized the results of 12 different studies on Alzheimer’s and personality, with a combined total of more than 3,000 participants. Overall, researchers found more amyloid and tau deposits in people who scored high in neuroticism and low in conscientiousness. (They defined neuroticism as a predisposition for negative emotions, and conscientiousness as the tendency to be careful, organized, goal-directed and responsible.)

Amyloid and tau are both normal proteins that naturally occur in the brain. But people with Alzheimer’s disease have abnormally high levels of the proteins, which clump together to form tangles that then disrupt brain and body communication.

The association between these specific traits with levels of amyloid and tau were more prominent in people with normal brain functioning than people with cognitive problems.

 

The researchers say their study suggests that certain personality traits — low neuroticism, high conscientiousness — may be able to protect some people from the brain changes that signal the onset of Alzheimer’s.

“Such protection against neuropathology may derive from a lifetime difference in people’s emotions and behaviours,” Terracciano elaborated. “For example, past research has shown that low neuroticism helps with managing stress and reduces the risk of common mental health disorders. Similarly, high conscientiousness is consistently related to healthy lifestyles, like physical activity. Over time, more adaptive personality traits can better support metabolic and immunological functions, and ultimately prevent or delay the neurodegeneration process.”

The study didn’t specify whether there are changes people can make if their personality traits put them in the high neuroticism, low conscientiousness category.

It’s also encouraging that the proteins can be measured in live participants using brain scans, they said.

“Until recently, researchers measured amyloid and tau in the brain through autopsy — after people died,” Terracciano told FSU News. “In recent years, advances in medical imaging have made it possible to assess neuropathology when people are still alive, even before they show any symptoms.”

More than 700,000 Canadians have Alzheimer’s disease. In ten years, that number is expected to grow to 1.4 million.