The surprising connection between personality and health
When assessing health, personality traits could be as important of a factor as family history and smoking habits, according to new research from the American Psychological Association. The study found that a young adult who is conscientious will be more likely to avoid serious health problems later in life.
“Health care reform provides a great opportunity for preventive care, with physicians seeing more young adults who may not previously have had insurance,” said lead study author Salomon Israel, of Duke University, in a statement. “Our research found that if a doctor knows a patient’s personality, it is possible to develop a more effective preventive health care plan that will result in a much healthier life.”
Of the “Big Five” traits which are the basis for most psychological personality assessments, being conscientious appears to be the best indicator of good health, more so than extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Study participants who were conscientious at 26 years old were more likely to be in better health at age 38 than those who scored low in that personality trait.
Conscientious people are more likely to be active, follow a healthy diet, and have self-control, which also makes them less likely to smoke or abuse drugs and alcohol.
“Among the least conscientious, 45 percent went on to develop multiple health problems by age 38, while just 18 percent of the most conscientious group developed health problems,” Israel said. “Individuals low in conscientiousness were more often overweight, had high cholesterol, inflammation, hypertension and greater rates of gum disease.”
The researchers used data from a New Zealand health and development study tracking people born in 1972 or 1973. The participants were assessed every two years from birth until age 38, which included personality assessments along with physical exams and gathering of clinical health information commonly recorded in primary care offices.
According to American Psychological Association Executive Director, Norman B. Anderson, “the best health care is one that treats the whole person including how their personality traits impacts their attitudes and behaviors vis-à-vis their health.”
Israel agrees that these findings can have an impact on how patients are evaluated.
“Personality traits can be measured cheaply, easily and reliably, and these traits are stable over many years and have far-ranging effects on health,” he said. “Our findings suggest that in addition to considering ‘what’ a patient has among risks for chronic age-related diseases, physicians can benefit from knowing ‘who’ the patient is in terms of personality in order to design effective preventive health care.”
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