Personality may be key risk factor in preventive health care

Thursday 27th March 2014

Conscientious young adults enjoy better health as they age, our research found. When it comes to helping young adults avoid serious health problems later in life, assessing their personalities during routine medical examinations could prove as useful as recording their family medical histories and smoking habits, according to a new paper from the Dunedin Study team led by Dr Salomon Israel and published by the American Psychological Association. 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.

Being conscientious appears to be the best bet for good health among traits known as the "Big Five," which are the basis for most psychological personality assessments. Along with conscientiousness, the Big Five include extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience. Participants who were more conscientious when they were 26 years old were more likely to be in much better health at age 38 than those who were low in that personality trait, the study found.

Among the least conscientious, 45 percent went on to develop multiple health problems by age 38, while just 18 percent of the most conscientious group developed health problems. Individuals low in conscientiousness were more often overweight, had high cholesterol, inflammation, hypertension and greater rates of gum 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. This could explain the apparent relationship between that trait and better health. A surprising find was that being neurotic at age 26 was not linked to poorer physical health at age 38, contrary to some theories that aspects of neuroticism such as stress and anxiety can lead to ill health. This was the case even though the neurotic participants rated themselves in poorer health at the later age, according to the study.

"Personality traits can be measured cheaply, easily and reliably, and these traits are stable over many years and have far-ranging effects on health," said Dr Israel. "Our findings suggest that in addition to considering 'what' a patient has among risks for chronic age-related diseases, physicians can benefit from knowing 'who' the patient is in terms of personality in order to design effective preventive health care."

 

Israel, S., Moffitt, T. E., Belsky, D. W., Hancox, R. J., Poulton, R., Roberts, B. W., Thomson, W. M., & Caspi, A.
| 2014

Translating Personality Psychology to Help Personalize Preventive Medicine for Young-Adult Patients. 

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology2014, Vol. 106(3), 484-498.