Are some people protected against Dementia because of their Personality?

Personality traits with a Protective Factor

For several decades, the development of a vaccine that can repair brain damage caused by the accumulation of amyloid found in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease has evaded scientists.

Hence, today, researchers are seeking out new avenues of study into non-biological factors that result in damage.

In a recent study, Professor Panteleimon Giannakopoulos from Geneva, Switzerland tracked 65 elderly people for over 4 years.  All were given tests including brain imaging, cognitive and personality assessments, in an effort to understand non-lesional determinants of brain damage.

The results were surprising.

The researchers found that people who are unpleasant, who are not afraid of conflicts and who show a degree of anti-conformity have better-protected brains. In addition, this protection takes place precisely in the memory circuits that are damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

In contrast to non-conforming personality traits, Professor Giannakopoulos explains:

“A high level of agreeableness characterizes highly adaptive personalities, who want above all to be in line with the wishes of others, to avoid conflict, and to seek cooperation. 

This differs from extraversion. You can be very extroverted and not very pleasant, as are narcissistic personalities, for example.

The important determinant is the relationship to the other: do we adapt to others at our own expense?”

The second personality trait, identified by the study, linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s was being open to experience.

People who are open to experience tend to be curious about the world and seek out knowledge. They are more likely to be imaginative, sensitive to their feelings, intellectually curious and seekers of variety.

Professor Giannakopoulos:

“This is less surprising, as we already knew that the desire to learn and interest in the world around us protects against cerebral ageing.”

Personality Traits with an Increased Risk

Being neurotic increases the risk of developing dementia by 6 per cent, researchers in a separate study found.  The study included 524 people who were given tests of personality and symptoms of pre-dementia.

The major personality trait of neuroticism involves a tendency towards worry and moodiness.

People who are neurotic are more likely to experience negative emotions like depression, anxiety, guilt and envy. They are particularly sensitive to chronic stress.

Persistent patterns of negative thinking are also linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, new research finds.  Negative thinking patterns over time have been linked to cognitive decline and the deposit of harmful proteins in the brain. Repetitive negative thinking may increase blood pressure, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Natalie Marchant, the study’s first author, said:

“Depression and anxiety in mid-life and old age are already known to be risk factors for dementia.  Here, we found that certain thinking patterns implicated in depression and anxiety could be an underlying reason why people with those disorders are more likely to develop dementia.”

The study included 292 people who were tracked over two years.  They were asked how much they tended to think repetitively about negative experiences along with being given other tests, including brain scans.

The results showed that people who had stronger patterns of repetitive negative thinking experienced greater cognitive decline.

Moving Forward

Personality, though, is not destiny, when it comes to dementia — good brain health is about nature and nurture.

Although personality can be difficult to change, many factors can reduce the risk of developing dementia such as a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise.  Keeping the mind active, learning new activities, travel and deepening social relationships may all be beneficial. Repetitive negative thinking has also been shown to be reduced by using mindfulness or various different types of talk therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy.


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