Doctors have been telling us for decades that social connection has a major impact on our health. Throughout the pandemic, many of us have learned how quickly we can get sick or sad in isolation. Now that many of us are allowed back into social life, it’s our personalities rather than public health mandates that determine how much time we spend with others. And new research suggests there are surprising links between personality, social connection and brain health.
The study, published yesterday in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, analyzed the personalities of 1,954 adults in Chicago from 1997 to the present. The researchers gave the individuals an initial personality assessment and a cognitive assessment each year of participation. Because the study spanned two decades, the scientists had the opportunity to observe how people with different personality types age cognitively, and they found distinct links between certain personality types and how quickly with which a person’s brain ages.
To be clear, when psychologists refer to personality assessment, they are not just judging people on the kind of people they are. There are believed to be five main categories of personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each participant was given a score for each trait on a scale of zero to 48. What they found was that people who were high on the conscientiousness scale or low on the neuroticism scale were less likely to go from normal cognitive functioning to mild cognitive impairment over the years. the course of the study.
In other words, conscientious or non-neurotic people were able to maintain better brain health. According to the study, every six additional points a person scored on a consciousness scale was associated with a more than 20% decrease in the risk of developing cognitive impairment. The researchers also found that those who were highly extroverted were able to recover better from cognitive impairment than those who scored lower and gained an extra year of life without cognitive impairment.
Some experts think this research is important because it serves as data to back up what they’re trying to tell us, which is that social connection is crucial to our physical and mental health. “A strong social support network and consistent interactions with people are absolutely a protective factor for our cognitive health, so it makes sense that extrovert people experience lower rates of cognitive decline,” says Stefani Goerlich, a psychotherapist based at Detroit. “Similarly, people who are more conscientious in general are likely to be more conscientious about proactively managing their health, which again will protect them against cognitive decline,” Goerlich says.
Those who were highly extroverted were able to recover better from cognitive impairment than those who scored lower.
This seems like common sense and is consistent with previous studies on social connections and health, so how is this different? “A lot of research is about finding evidence of what we already suspect to be true,” Goerlich says. “This is one of those cases – it adds empirical evidence to a common-sense assumption.” It turns out that having health care data can be crucial in determining both public policy and personal choice. And, Goerlich points out, this study is descriptive rather than prescriptive, which means it tells us about a correlation that currently exists but must not continue.
There’s a lot of debate about whether personality traits are static or fixed, but Goerlich says personality can be much more fluid than assessments can measure. “These [traits] are not innate things that some people have and some people don’t,” says Goerlich. “Anyone can work to be a little more outgoing or a little more aware.” In this way, Goerlich says she disagrees with the idea of interpreting this study as establishing a causal link between personality and cognitive decline.
It can be tempting to make general statements about personality and health, but ultimately human personality is nuanced. Even in this rigorous longitudinal study, while extraversion was linked to additional cognitive health, introversion was not associated with cognitive decline. According to the study, the personality trait most closely linked to cognitive decline was neuroticism, which is characterized by mood swings, emotional instability and affects how people deal with stress. This finding is consistent with other recent research that suggests neurotic people are more likely to develop dementia.
All told, this research confirms our common-sense notions that community and connection lead to better health. “Therapists and physicians can encourage our clients to form the social supports and behavioral habits that are beneficial without relying on ‘trust me,'” says Goerlich. But that doesn’t mean that if you tend to be neurotic, you’re doomed to an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. We all possess the Big Five personality traits to some degree, and it’s up to us to decide how we adopt them in our behavior.
Honestly, as an introvert, I felt attacked by this study at first, but Goerlich says it’s more nuanced than just “extroverts live better longer.” I asked Goerlich if it was possible to be a conscientious introvert. “Yes,” she said. “You can also be a neurotic extrovert, by the way.” Each of the Big Five personality traits is a different measure, she explained, and none of them are predictors of how you present yourself in the world.