I’m the type of person who doesn’t mind taking a personality test to discover what type of person I am. It’s not something I routinely seek out (that would be slightly neurotic), but when circumstances have called for this sort of self-assessment, I’ve often found the results intriguing.
During the early years of our cohabitation, for instance, My Lovely Wife and I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator on a lark — ostensibly to see if we were indeed compatible. I can’t recall the specific conclusions, but here we are 45 years later, so I guess that says something. And on various occasions during my checkered journalism career, I’ve filled in the blanks on a variety of personality tests to see if I was well matched with my job and my colleagues. Some of those findings were revelatory, like the time I discovered one of my coworkers fit the same Enneagram profile as my daughter. So that’s why we’ve been butting heads so often, I remember thinking.
So, you can imagine my response last week after reading about a new study out of the University of Victoria suggesting that certain personality traits may be more likely than others to lead to cognitive dysfunction as we age. Who wouldn’t want to know where they stand?
Tomiko Yoneda, PhD, and her team reviewed data on nearly 2,000 elderly participants in the Rush Memory and Aging Project. Dementia-free when recruited, these volunteers took a personality assessment and then submitted to annual cognitive screenings over the course of several years. Focusing on three of the so-called “Big Five” personality traits (conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extroversion), researchers concluded that conscientious seniors were less likely than their neurotic peers to develop the early signs of dementia.
“Scoring approximately six more points on a conscientiousness scale ranging 0 to 48 was associated with a 22 percent decreased risk of transitioning from normal cognitive functioning to mild cognitive impairment,” Yoneda explains. “Additionally, scoring approximately seven more points on a neuroticism scale of 0 to 48 was associated with a 12 percent increased risk of transition.”
And although researchers found no specific link between extroversion and the eventual development of dementia, they did notice that the trait tended to further delay cognitive impairment for those who scored high on conscientiousness and low on neuroticism. On the whole, however, I found the results rather underwhelming: Conscientious seniors enjoyed only two more years of clear thinking than their less-conscientious counterparts; neurotics fell into cognitive disrepair only a year earlier than those who scored lower on that scale.
Yoneda did mention the well-documented cognitive benefits that accrue to those who cultivate social connections, which happens to be an ongoing challenge for this dedicated introvert. Still, that didn’t deter me from taking an online test to see how I might measure up on those Big Five personality traits. Maybe I’m more extroverted than I think.
Not so much, it turns out. My Extroversion score of 33 percent paled next to my twin 83 percent ratings on Openness and Conscientiousness, and a 96 percent score on Agreeableness. And maybe I’m not as neurotic as MLW suspects: 4 percent.
How all this might affect my ability to maintain some functional brainpower in my dotage is anyone’s guess, of course. Yoneda admits her study was limited by its lack of diversity, plus there’s plenty of research extolling the role diet, exercise, stress, and myriad other factors play in our cognitive health as we grow old. Still, I’d hate to think I’m not taking full advantage of my stellar conscientiousness and modest neuroticism simply because I avoid big parties.
And, as Yoneda notes, personality is not necessarily static. A dementia diagnosis, for instance, may trigger a major shift. “Once an individual starts to experience cognitive impairment, they may engage in healthier behaviors according to physician recommendations that are protective against further cognitive decline, despite preexisting personality,” she writes. “While the decision to engage in healthier behaviors may just reflect change in behavior, it is possible that individuals also experience personality change following a clinical diagnosis.”
At that point, however, you can throw out all the results garnered from these personality assessments. How well you navigate with a broken brain becomes the only test that counts.