You know your genes, your diet, your exercise habits, and your lifestyle are all factors that affect your overall health and wellness.
But what about your personality? Can being an extrovert or being adventurous influence how healthy you are?
The answer is yes, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Duke University. The findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reveal that being conscientious seems to be the best personality trait for good health.
Researchers examined data from a Dunedin, New Zealand, study involving 1,037 individuals born between April 1972 and March 1973. The participants were assessed about every two years from birth until they reached age 38.
Clinical health information and risk factors commonly documented in primary care offices, including income, education, smoking, obesity, current and past illnesses and family medical history were also gathered.
“Those who were deemed the most conscientious were the healthiest, with just 18% developing health problems at age 38, compared to 45% of the least conscientious participants.”
When the participants were 26 years old, they were asked to recommend someone who knew them well, such as a parent, partner, or close friend, to describe them using the “Big Five” traits. The “Big Five” traits include conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience and are the basis for most psychological personality assessments.
At age 32, a clinical receptionist or nurse performed a second personality assessment, and though the health professionals were not aware of the study’s focus, the assessment results were akin to those given by the family members or friends.
Six years later, when participants reached age 38, they underwent physical exams to check for nine indicators of poor adult health, including metabolic abnormalities, high blood pressure, vascular inflammation, liver and kidney function, lung and heart fitness, and periodontal disease. The results showed a link between personality and health.
Those who were deemed the most conscientious were the healthiest, with just 18% developing health problems such as inflammation, hypertension, high cholesterol, and becoming overweight at age 38, compared to 45% of the least conscientious participants.
Individuals who were “open,” defined as curious, imaginative, and preferring variety over routine, were also healthier in their later years.
And while neuroticism had been linked to health problems in previous studies, at age 38, the study subjects assessed as such did not show poorer health; they did, however, assess themselves as having poorer health later in life.
Researchers theorized that conscientious people are more likely to lead an active lifestyle, maintain healthful diets, and demonstrate greater self-control, making them unlikely to engage in unhealthful behavior such as smoking or drug and alcohol abuse. They were also deemed more likely to have successful careers and stable marriages, both factors associated with positive health.
Likewise, those who were “open” were more inquisitive and had higher IQs, increasing the likelihood that they would be educated about healthful habits.
Study author Salomon Israel noted, “Personality traits can be measured cheaply, easily and reliably, and these traits are stable over many years and have far-ranging effects on health. 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.”
The Bottom Line
This study harkens to a set of experiments conducted on young children in the early 1970s. Called the Marshmallow Test, a Stanford psychologist explored self-control in children with a simple but effective test.
Preschoolers were presented with a treat such as a marshmallow. The child was told that the researcher had to leave the room for a few minutes, but if the child waited until the researcher returned, he or she would get two marshmallows. If the child couldn’t wait, he or she would only get one marshmallow.
In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational achievement, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures.
It’s clear that being and staying healthy require conscious effort. But just because your personality may be more impulsive doesn’t mean you can’t be healthy – it may just take more effort and diligence on your part to make healthy decisions each day.
In our world of instant gratification, this could be a difficult row to hoe, but with a little effort, you can make a big difference!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.