CHICAGO – A surprising study of elderly people suggests that those who see themselves as self-disciplined, organized achievers have a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease than people who are less conscientious.
A purposeful personality may somehow protect the brain, perhaps by increasing neural connections that can act as a reserve against mental decline, said study co-author Robert Wilson of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center.
Astoundingly, the brains of some of the dutiful people in the study were examined after their deaths and were found to have lesions that would meet accepted criteria for Alzheimer’s – even though these people had shown no signs of dementia.
Previous studies have linked social connections and activities like working puzzles with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. The same researchers reported previously that people who experience more distress and worry are at a higher risk.
At the start of the study, none of the participants showed signs of dementia. The average age was 75. Everyone took tests, including a standard personality test, then the researchers tracked them for 12 years, testing yearly for cognitive decline and dementia. Brain autopsies were performed on most of those who died.
During the 12 years, 176 people developed Alzheimer’s disease. Those with the highest scores for a personality trait called “conscientiousness” at the start of the study had an 89 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to people with the lowest scores for that personality trait.
The conscientiousness scores were based on how people rated themselves, on a scale of zero to 4, on how much they agreed with statements such as: “I work hard to accomplish my goals,” “I strive for excellence in everything I do” and “I keep my belongings clean and neat.”
When the researchers took into account a combination of risk factors, including smoking, inactivity and limited social connections, they still found that the dutiful people had a 54 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s.