Anxious, Moody Older Adults Are Vulnerable to Worse Cognitive Function

Summary: Older people who have higher levels of neuroticism are more likely to have worse cognitive function than those with other personality traits. Researchers say personality traits may be related to how well people can maintain their cognitive function, despite developing neuropathology associated with aging and dementia.

Source: Northwestern University

Our aging brains collect tangles and sticky plaques that can interfere in our cognition and memory. But some older adults with this neuropathology have more cognitive resilience than others, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

The reason: their personalities.

Personality traits were associated with cognitive resilience, which is the ability to better live with the neuropathology in the brain that causes dementia. Individuals with a greater tendency toward self-discipline, organization, diligence, high achievement and motivation — a trait known as higher conscientiousness — was associated with greater resilience.

Individuals with higher neuroticism — a greater tendency towards anxiety, worry, moodiness and impulsivity — were more likely to have worse cognitive function than expected given the amount of neuropathology detected at autopsy.

The study was published Sept. 24 in Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

“These findings provide evidence that it is possible for older adults to live with the neuropathology associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias while maintaining relatively healthy levels of cognitive function,” said lead study author Eileen Graham, a research assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Our study shows personality traits are related to how well people are able to maintain their cognitive function in spite of developing neuropathology,” Graham said.

“Since it is possible for personality to change, both volitionally and through interventions, it’s possible that personality could be used to identify those who are at risk and implement early interventions to help optimize function throughout old age.”

This shows an older man
This is believed to be one of the first studies showing an individual’s personality traits are linked to how well they are able to sustain their cognitive function as they age. Image is in the public domain.

Personality and other factors that promote cognitive resilience may be particularly important in the context of stress (like the COVID-19 pandemic) and this is an important area of future research, Graham noted.

This is believed to be one of the first studies showing an individual’s personality traits are linked to how well they are able to sustain their cognitive function as they age. These findings lend credence to the idea that personality can be leveraged to help individuals maintain their cognitive function when they may otherwise be vulnerable to neurodegeneration.

The data was collected at Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Individuals contributed annual psychosocial self-report survey and clinical data. At study enrollment they also consented to donating their brains for post-mortem autopsy. Study participants contributed years of rich data on their psychological and cognitive functioning while they were living, as well as autopsy data after they died.

Other Northwestern authors are Daniel Mrocze k, Kathryn Jackson and Emily Willroth.

Funding: The research was supported by National Institute of Aging grants R01-AG018436, R01-AG067622, P30AG10161, R01AG15819, R01AG17917 of the National Institutes of Health.

About this autism research article

Garvan Institute of Medical Research
Marla Paul – Northwestern University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Associations Between Personality Traits and Cognitive Resilience in Older Adults” by Eileen K Graham, PhD, Bryan D James, PhD, Kathryn L Jackson, MS, Emily C Willroth, PhD, Patricia Boyle, PhD, Robert Wilson, PhD, David A Bennett, MD, Daniel K Mroczek, PhD. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.


Associations Between Personality Traits and Cognitive Resilience in Older Adults

The goal of this paper was to examine associations between personality traits and resilience to neuropathologic burden.

Using data from the Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project, we identified a total of 1,375 participants with personality, cognitive, and post-mortem neuropathology data. We regressed cognition onto pathology and extracted the residuals as an indicator of cognitive resilience. We then modeled the effect of Big Five personality traits on cognitive resilience, adjusting for demographics, APOE status, medical comorbidities, and cognitive activity. The analytic plan was preregistered prior to data access or analysis, and all scripts and outputs are available online.

Higher neuroticism was associated with greater vulnerability to pathology. Results from exploratory analyses suggest that higher conscientiousness was associated with less cognitive decline relative to the amount of pathology, or greater resilience. Education and cognitive activity did not moderate these associations.

Personality may have a pathoplastic effect on neuropathology, as low neuroticism and high conscientiousness are associated with better function despite neuropathologic burden.

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