Dementia risk tied to personality: Anxious, moody people more prone to brain disease

CHICAGO — As we age, the countless cells and neurons in our brains can come under attack from harmful tangles and plaque build-ups. This interference is the common cause of dementia, which destroys the memory and thinking abilities of many seniors. While scientists continue to work on treatments for dementia, a new study finds your personality may be the best weapon you have. Researchers at Northwestern University say anxious and moody people are more susceptible to the affects of brain damage later in life.

A review of patient brains donated to science finds certain people can still function at a high level despite having the same neuropathology of someone suffering from cognitive decline. Reviewing annual psychosocial surveys these patients took before their deaths, researchers discovered individuals with a greater tendency for self-discipline, organization, diligence, high achievement, and motivation fight off the causes of dementia better than others.

This personality, known as having a high level of conscientiousness, shows a link to better resilience against memory and thinking problems. On the other hand, patients who experience anxiety, moodiness, impulsivity, and generally worry more have less cognitive function before their deaths.

“These findings provide evidence that it is possible for older adults to live with the neuropathology associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias while maintaining relatively healthy levels of cognitive function,” lead study author Eileen Graham says in a media release.

‘Changing outlook on life’ may help keep dementia away

The data in the Northwestern report comes from the Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Patients volunteered to share years of self-reports on their mental state with researchers looking at brain health. Upon their deaths, each patient agreed to donate their brain to the study so the team could check the levels of tangles and plaque build-ups inside.

Graham says the results show people at risk for dementia can take an active role in fighting off the affects of brain damage simply by changing their outlook on life.

“Our study shows personality traits are related to how well people are able to maintain their cognitive function in spite of developing neuropathology,” the assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine adds.

“Since it is possible for personality to change, both volitionally and through interventions, it’s possible that personality could be used to identify those who are at risk and implement early interventions to help optimize function throughout old age.”

Study authors note this is the first report showing a connection between someone’s personality and better brain function. They add one of the key stressors currently testing the cognitive resilience of many is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study appears in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

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