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Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.
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(Photo: fiphoto/Shutterstock)

(Photo: fiphoto/Shutterstock)

How likely are you to suffer a stroke? How about a heart condition? Or arthritis?

New research suggests the answer depends, in part, on your personality.

“Personality traits are not merely predictors of general health,” writes a research team led by psychologist Sara Weston of Washington University in St. Louis, “but also serve as risk factors for the development of a number of diseases.”

Analyzing data from a large sample of senior citizens, the researchers found a link between personality types and the likelihood of suffering from a number of late-life medical problems, including a stroke, lung disease, and high blood pressure.

“These findings support the emerging consensus that personality traits play an important role in the health process,” they write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The notion that personality impacts health is hardly new. But as Weston and her colleagues point out, most previous studies that address this issue have suffered from the familiar chicken-and-egg problem: Due to their design, they were unable to “distinguish between personality traits as rick factors, or as byproducts of the disease.”

Openness to experience (a hallmark of people who are imaginative, intelligent, and broad-minded) was strongly linked to better health conditions.

To get around that issue—and to see if they could link specific personality traits with specific health issues—these researchers conducted a longitudinal study in which the personalities of participants were assessed in 2006, and their health issues were noted four years later.

They used data on 6,904 older Americans (median age 68) who participated in the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. In order to rule out people with undiagnosed illnesses, they restricted their sample to people who had visited a doctor or clinic within the previous two years.

Participants were presented with a list of adjectives, ranging from “outgoing” and “friendly” to “sophisticated” and “dominant.” They indicated on a scale of one to four (“a lot” to “not at all”) how well each word described them. Based on their answers, they were given scores on the “Big Five” personality types: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.

Four years later, they were contacted again, given a list of serious illnesses, and asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with one or more of them.

“Nearly every test of personality differences between individuals with a disease and those without proved statistically significant,” the researchers report. “Overall, high conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and low neuroticism were associated with better health or absence of disease.”

Personality traits did not predict the diagnosis of cancer four years later. But they were linked to the onset of many other serious conditions.

“A one unit increase in conscientiousness (which describes people who are organized, responsible, and hard-working) decreases the odds of a stroke diagnosis by 37 percent,” the researchers report.

Openness to experience (a hallmark of people who are imaginative, intelligent, and broad-minded) was strongly linked to better health conditions. A one-unit increase in that trait decreased the odds of a stroke diagnosis by 31 percent, a heart condition by 17 percent, and high blood pressure by 29 percent.

On the other hand, a one-unit increase in neuroticism (that is, a tendency to be moody, nervous, and prone to worry) “increased the odds of a heart condition by 24 percent ... a lung disease diagnosis by 29 percent, high blood pressure by 37 percent, and arthritis by 25 percent.”

Worry long enough, and you'll very likely find you have something to really worry about.

The findings come with at least one practical recommendation: “Personality tests should be included in routine assessments by health professionals, insofar as they could identify individuals with greater risk for developing debilitating and costly illnesses.”

That makes sense, but it could be a tricky topic for physicians to finesse. You don’t want to give anxiety-prone people more reason to feel anxious.

But for ambitious individuals who would like to cultivate the positive traits of openness and conscientiousness, this news could also be a huge incentive. Doing so won’t only make you a better person: It may also lead to better health.