What Are the “Big Five” Personality Traits that Can Contribute to Dementia Risk?

Roxanne is 76 and recently started hiking and swimming with fellow enthusiasts from different generations. David, a retired attorney in his 80s, got bored and went back to school and studied for his CPA. He works for a few months a year, helping people with their taxes. Ellen, 90, found a way to connect with her great-grandchildren, by learning about current rappers and Taylor Swift, while she taught them about some of the things that were “hip” when she was younger.

Roxanne, David, and Ellen have found ways to stay connected socially while still having lots of purpose in their lives. They have also all been able to stay cognitively fit and stave off dementia.

Study Examines the Five Key Personality Traits that Can Contribute to Dementia

People’s personalities can influence whether or not daily habits are healthy or unhealthy for the brain, according to a recent study at Northwestern University (in cooperation with other universities) that was published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. The study of 44,000 people aged between 49 and 81 looked at the effect of five key personality traits (referred to as the “Big Five”) that can contribute to dementia – conscientiousness, extroversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, and agreeableness. These are some of the findings:

  • Scientists believe that the “Big Five” personality traits are linked to cognitive reserve, a resilience within the brain driven by genetic, personality, and various lifestyle factors. Positive personality traits may, over a lifetime, give people resilience to illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and other dementia — even if they aren’t aware of this.
  • The researchers found that high scores on negative traits (neuroticism, negative affect) and low scores on positive traits (conscientiousness, extroversion, positive affect) were associated with a higher risk of a dementia diagnosis.
  • In a smaller subset, high scores on openness to experience, agreeableness, and life satisfaction had a protective effect, as well.
  • Researchers noted that extroverts or even those with a more positive outlook on life were less likely to develop dementia. They noted that extroverts are far more likely to engage in social activities, which are known to help boost cognitive reserve. In addition, even if brain changes are taking place, an upbeat personality might be countering the effect and allowing people to better cope, the researchers theorized.
  • People with neuroticism are more prone to anxiousness, guilt, moodiness, and worry. Neurotics may be more prone to pushing people away and becoming isolated, which has been known to boost dementia risk.
  • Researchers found that conscientious people are more likely to eat better, exercise, make and go to preventative health appointments, and drink less alcohol. They typically take care of their health, which accumulates better physical and brain health in the long term.

Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, explains that, “with age, the brain’s outer layer begins to thin, while toxic protein fragments linked to dementia, known as amyloid plaques or tau tangles, begin to accumulate in various parts of the brain.” She explores the concept of cognitive reserve, and how the “Big Five” personality traits can have an effect on boosting it. Rogalski cites famous studies of nursing home residents who have undergone brain scans and have been found to have a high degree of plaques in their brains, levels normally associated with Alzheimer’s. Yet they still experience no memory problems or changes in their everyday life, due to their cognitive reserve. “We look at that and think, ‘Gosh, how are these people resilient to that?’” says Rogalski. “But they are.”

What Do We Know About Cognitive Reserve and How Can You Acquire It?

Whether or not you naturally possess the favorable personality traits described above, it’s never too late to take steps to boost your cognitive reserve, whether you’re in midlife or your 80s and 90s. Neuroscientists believe that activities that stimulate the brain cognitively, such as continued intellectual and social engagement through later life, help to maintain high levels of proteins in the brain that help preserve neural connections. Here are some ways to boost cognitive reserve:

  • Higher educational achievements or greater career success has been linked to cognitive reserve.
  • Higher levels of social engagement through mid and later life have been strongly linked with better cognitive reserve and a 30–50 percent lower risk of dementia. Socializing involves remembering faces and names, picking up on social cues, and asking questions, which all exercise the brain’s capacities.
  • Challenge yourself: Becoming proficient in a new language or learning an instrument have been linked to building up cognitive reserve.
  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet: Eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods is known to disrupt many of the brain’s functions by generating persistent inflammation, which can reach the mind through the bloodstream. Instead, researchers recommend diets that are low in saturated fat – protecting the heart – and also high in fiber.
  • Quality sleep: Getting plenty of good quality sleep can boost your cognitive reserve. One study found that non-rapid eye movement, a particular phase of deep sleep, is important because it helps with clearing toxins and maintaining the neural connections involved in memory formation.
  • Physical activity is also known to play a crucial role in cognitive reserve. Exercise helps to maintain heart health and blood flow to the brain, as well as increasing levels of crucial enzymes associated with memory formation.

Many factors contribute to the development of dementia. Among those that aren’t directly related to genetics, the “Big Five” study described above is a first step in examining the associations between personality and dementia. The scientists plan to continue to expand their work and hope to look at other everyday factors that may play a role in developing dementia.

Do You or a Loved One Have Dementia?

Persons with dementia, and their families, face special legal and financial risks. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with dementia or any other type of cognitive impairment, it is prudent to start your planning as soon as possible. If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past three to five years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared! Please reach out to make an appointment when you’re ready:

Fairfax Elder Care Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Care Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Care Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Care Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.