Can your personality influence your health?
The answer is yes, according to a study published this month by the American Psychological Association.
Researchers found that patients who were rated as highly conscientious in their 20s were more likely to be in better health over a decade later.
According to the study, 45 percent of those rated low in conscientiousness went on to develop multiple health problems by age 38, while just 18 percent of the most conscientious group developed health problems. Those low in conscientiousness were more likely to be overweight and have high cholesterol, inflammation, hypertension and gum disease.
The Duke University researchers are advising doctors to use the study’s findings to help focus prevention efforts on young adults who score low on conscientiousness, one of the five traits that make up most psychological personality assessments.
“Health-care reform provides a great opportunity for preventive care, with physicians seeing more young adults who may not previously have had insurance,” said the study’s lead author Salomon Israel, also of Duke University Medical Center. “Our research found that if a doctor knows a patient’s personality, it is possible to develop a more effective preventive health care plan that will result in a much healthier life.”
Israel suggests that doctors administer personality tests during routine exams, much as they already record family medical histories and smoking habits.
The researchers examined data from a New Zealand health and development study of 1,037 people born in 1972 and 1973. Slightly more than half the subjects were male. The participants were assessed about every two years from birth until they were 38.
At 26, the participants nominated a person who knew them well, such as a parent, spouse or friend, to describe their personality, using what are known as the “Big Five” traits. The five traits are conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience.
Researchers also gathered participants’ clinical health information and risk factors.
At 32, the participants’ personalities were assessed again, this time in a clinical setting, yielding similar results, according to the study. Six years later, the participants had physical exams that checked for abnormalities of liver and kidney functions, blood pressure, heart and lung fitness, vascular inflammation and periodontal disease.
Conscientious people are more likely to have active lifestyles, maintain healthy diets and have more self-control, so are less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol and drugs, the study noted.
However, the researchers were surprised to find that being neurotic at age 26 was not linked to poorer physical health at age 38.