Are you type A or type B? Funny or serious? A hard worker or work only to play? Your answers may tell you more about your health than ever before. Research has grown to link certain personality traits to mortality, disability, and general health. The problem is that most of the studies have focused on one personality trait at a time. So it’s hard to nail down larger patterns, and moreover, if health is a function of personality or vice versa.
Study author Josh Jackson of Washington University in St Louis explains,
We didn’t know whether your personality affects your health, or if having a disease can change your personality or how you view yourself. Our research is one of the first studies that has looked at how personality traits are associated with the onset of new diseases over time.
The researchers were able to track almost 7,000 adults between 30 and their 90’s. They filled out questionnaires and reported any preexisting conditions like heart disease or cancer. Researchers weren’t looking for Type A vs Type B. They were looking at the Big 5 Personality traits. Jackson explains,
The best way to characterize personality is not with types, but instead looking at a continuum – how much of this particular characteristic do you have. It is not either-or, it’s an amount, and you can have a lot of one trait and a very little of another.
Personality Traits Could Protect You From Disease
4 years after they started the study, they followed up to see who had reported new health conditions. Then they compared this to the data on the Big 5 personality traits.
Jackson found that
two traits, conscientiousness and openness, serve as protective factors. Conscientious individuals are people who are reliable and able to control their impulses. Openness is best thought of as individuals who like to play with new ideas. Those who had either of these traits in high demand were less likely to have arthritis, strokes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.
This makes sense from a lifestyle perspective. Those who are conscientious are more likely to eat healthy foods, exercise, and use fewer drugs and alcohol. They are also more likely to do things like wearing their seat belts according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Unfortunately, researchers are not as sure why openness correlates with lower risk of disease.
Individuals who are high in openness tend to like to do activities that are cognitively challenging, such as reading books and doing crossword puzzles, and there’s been some research that this is good for your health. This may help you brain wise, but how does that help you to avoid disease?
Neuroticism on the other hand was associated with chronic stress and poor health. This can weaken the immune system, and it can make wounds harder to heal and cause strokes even.
Obviously, you’re not going to completely change your personality. However, you can look at some of the habits of conscientious and open people and adopt them. Things like eating healthy and exercising for example can be adopted by anyone. You can train yourself. However, if you suffer neuroticism, you may need more help toning it down.