These Two Personality Traits Are 'Risk Factors' For Alzheimer's

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Alexandra Lozovschi

Two common personality traits have been linked to a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other related dementias, according to a new study.

The research, published last month in the journal Biological Psychiatry, established a correlation between these particular traits and the changes that occur in the brain at a molecular level with the onset of dementia, specifically the buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles.

Tau creates tangles within a brain cell, while amyloid creates plaques around the cell, explains The New York Post.

The new findings add to the already existing body of evidence that personality can influence the neuropathology of Alzheimer's.

Read more below.

Big Five Personality Traits

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Since all of us hold dozen of personality traits that make us unique, the study authors turned their attention to five general traits that are familiar among mental health experts. Commonly known in scientific literature as the Big Five, these are conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion (or extroversion).

Let's examine each individually.

Conscientiousness describes people who are responsible, careful, and goal- and detail-oriented. They have high impulse control and tend to be organized.

Agreeableness is a trait describing people who are respectful, compassionate, trusting and try to avoid problems. Such people tend to be more cooperative and are helpful.

Neuroticism describes someone who gravitates toward unsettling emotions, such as anxiety and depression. Neurotic people get upset easily.

Openness is the trait associated with people who are open to new experiences and curious about the world. They are creative and happy to talk about abstract ideas.

Extraversion describes someone who seeks excitement and is active and highly sociable. Extroverts are talkative, have a lot of emotional expressiveness, and are energized around others.

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Neuroticism And Alzheimer's

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Of the five personality traits, neuroticism and conscientiousness were the two found to have a profound impact on Alzheimer's neuropathology. The research showed that neuroticism increases the likelihood of developing amyloid plaques and tau tangles, whereas conscientiousness reduces it.

“We have done studies showing who’s at risk of developing dementia, but those other studies were looking at the clinical diagnosis. Here, we are looking at the neuropathology; that is, the lesions in the brain that tell us about the underlying pathological change,” explained study lead author Dr. Antonio Terracciano, who is a professor in the Department of Geriatrics at Florida State University.

According to Terracciano, these pathological changes in the brain that signal the onset of Alzheimer's are not connected to a specific level of neuroticism and conscientiousness. In other words, being more neurotic won't exponentially increase the risk of dementia, just like being more conscientious won't exponentially decrease it.

"These associations seem to be linear without a threshold […] and there is no specific level that triggers resistance or susceptibility," he pointed out.

Two Methods Of Investigation

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To reach their conclusions, Terracciano's team followed two avenues of investigation. One method was to analyze data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), which enrolled over 3,000 people. The participants completed an extensive personality quiz to identify their Big Five traits then, one year later, underwent PET scans to see if any amyloid plaques and tau proteins had formed in their brains.

The second method was to review 12 existing studies that investigated the link between personality traits and the pathology of Alzheimer's. Both methods led to the same result, as the meta-analysis backed up the findings of the BLSA study.

Also of note, the correlation between personality and the risk of Alzheimer's was "strongest in people who were cognitively normal" at the time of either study, Medical News Today is reporting. This suggests that personality type may be a risk factor before the tangles and plaques have a chance to form in the brain.

“Research has looked at other personality traits, such as openness and extraversion, in relationship with dementia, but neuroticism and conscientiousness have the strongest link, according to recent meta-analyses,” Dr. Claire Sexton, director of scientific programs and outreach at Alzheimer’s Association, who was not involved in the study, told the outlet.

How Does Personality Raise The Risk Of Alzheimer's?

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As Dr. Terracciano explained, “there are aspects of neuroticism and conscientiousness that might directly impact the risk of dementia."

"Traits like neuroticism shape our emotional life, the way we cope with stress and deal with our feelings. Conscientiousness is defined by our level of grit, persistence, and planful attitudes,” he detailed.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sexton argues that lifestyle and behaviors that trigger inflammation might be responsible for an elevated risk of Alzheimer's.

“For example, highly conscientious individuals have been shown to have healthier lifestyles — in terms of physical activity, smoking, sleep, depression, cognitive stimulation, etc. — than those with lower conscientiousness," she said. "There is a solid body of research connecting lifestyle, dementia risk, and biomarkers.”

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