The notion that personality impacts health is hardly new. But as psychologist Sara Weston of Washington University in St. Louis and her colleagues point out, most previous studies that address this issue have suffered from the familiar chicken-and-egg problem: Due to their design, they were unable to “distinguish between personality traits as rick factors, or as byproducts of the disease.”
To get around that issue, and to see if they could link specific personality traits with specific health issues, these researchers conducted a longitudinal study in which the personalities of participants were assessed in 2006, and their health issues were noted four years later.
They used data on 6,904 older Americans (median age 68) who participated in the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. In order to rule out people with undiagnosed illnesses, they restricted their sample to people who had visited a doctor or clinic within the previous two years.
Participants were presented with a list of adjectives, ranging from “outgoing” and “friendly” to “sophisticated” and “dominant.” They indicated on a scale of one to four (“a lot” to “not at all”) how well each word described them. Based on their answers, they were given scores on the “Big Five” personality types: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.
Four years later, they were contacted again, given a list of serious illnesses, and asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with one or more of them. “Nearly every test of personality differences between individuals with a disease and those without proved statistically significant,” the researchers report.
Overall, high conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and low neuroticism were associated with better health or absence of disease.
For more on these findings, and how your personality could be affecting your health click here.