- Researchers say high school students with certain personality traits may have higher risks of dementia later in life.
- Their study involved 80,000 participants who were in high school in 1960 and then examined when they reached their late 60s and early 70s.
- Researchers said the calmer and more mature students had a lower risk of dementia, although they could not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
- Experts say having a healthy diet, a robust exercise program, and a lifestyle that includes activities such as reading and travel are the best ways to lower your dementia risk.
Whether you’re the bookworm or the class clown in high school, your personality could have an association with your risk of dementia later in life.
The researchers surveyed more than 80,000 participants across state schools during their adolescence in 1960 and then again when the participants reached their late 60s and early 70s.
The researchers reported that the calmer, more vigorous, and more mature students in high school had a lower risk of dementia later in life.
This association became stronger with higher socioeconomic statuses.
Personality traits associated with class clowns, such as high levels of neuroticism and lower levels of conscientiousness, were associated with greater dementia risk.
Dr. Kelly D. Peters, study author and principal psychometrician at the American Institutes for Research, says the Project Talent team assessed a number of personality traits from 1960.
When taken together, they reflected the full scale of personality traits that are commonly assessed today.
These personality traits included impulsivity, leadership, and social sensibility.
However, researchers could not establish a direct cause and effect from the traits to dementia.
“Previous research has identified certain personality traits that are associated with dementia diagnoses, but, given that personality is assessed so closely to the time of diagnosis, it is unclear if these traits serve as risk factors, or if they are simply expressions of underlying pathology,” Peters told Healthline.
In other words, it’s too early to tell whether a certain personality type serves as an independent risk factor for dementia later in life or if the personality type is a reflection of preexisting disease.
For now, it’s best to think of personality traits as protective factors against dementia later in life.
“Given that there may be some loose connection, observational at best, between being a bookworm as an adolescent and tending toward studious behavior, it seems fitting that a personality that leans into learning at a young age, might benefit from a greater cognitive reserve decades later,” Kevin Jameson, volunteer president of the Dementia Society of America, told Healthline.
“Evidence of this association lends support to the hypothesis that certain personality traits serve as protective factors against later-life dementia,” added Peters. “These [traits] are not to be confused with causal factors.”
This is an important distinction because “while this study is interesting, it shows only an association and not a cause/effect relationship between adolescent personality type and late-life dementia risk,” M.J. Contino, a senior specialist at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.
Without a clear causal link between personality type and dementia risk, the ability to use this information in any preventative way is limited.
For example, Contino says, “There is not enough evidence at this time to suggest that an intervention strategy for personality type in high school would be effective.”
So maybe researchers haven’t cracked the code to predicting and preventing dementia based on stereotypical personality types, but they have expanded on the conversation about personality traits as protective factors and later-life dementia risk.
Independent of who you were in high school, adopting a healthy lifestyle today is a positive way to minimize any risk factors, causal or otherwise.
“While researchers work to determine more concrete recommendations,” said Contino, “we can adopt healthy habits like eating a balanced diet, exercising, and getting good sleep to maximize our opportunity to reduce risk for cognitive decline.”
While Jameson isn’t a medical professional, his insight comes from personal experience with his late wife, Ginny, and continues with his many roles as founder, chief executive officer, and president of the Dementia Society of America.
“Cognitive reserve and brain plasticity are two hallmarks of brain health,” he said. “Even later in life we have the opportunity to increase both markers for excellent cognition through exposure to new and novel thinking and doing, as well as improvements in our overall environment.”
“Good brain health, as it turns out, is both nurture and nature,” he said.
Jameson suggests implementing the following “environmental improvements” to help reduce your risk of cognitive decline over the years:
- increasing physical exercise
- deepening social interaction and relationships
- shifting towards a Mediterranean-style diet
- placing yourself in immersive travel
- having new educational experiences such as night school classes, learning a new language, involving yourself in a new hobby
Contino reminds us that no matter who we were in high school, “It’s never too late to start living a healthy lifestyle.”