Posted on Jul 25, 2017, 8 a.m.
Having higher levels of the personality trait neuroticism may reduce the risk of death for people who report being in fair or poor health.
Data derived from a longitudinal study of half a million individuals in the United Kingdom shows neuroticism reduces the odds of death for those who report being in poor or fair health. The study was co-authored by academicians and researchers from the University of Edinburgh and University College London. The details of the research were recently published in Psychological Science. The research further revealed that the component of neuroticism linked to worrying and feeling vulnerable is tied to decreased mortality, regardless of self-reported health.
The Importance of the Findings
These findings are intriguing as they suggest a higher level of neuroticism has the potential to provide a protective effect. It is possible that neuroticism makes individuals more vigilant about personal health. Those with particularly high levels of neuroticism are more inclined to feel negative emotions including nervousness, irritability, guilt, worry, and frustration. Their neuroticism levels are particularly high compared to others who have low levels of neuroticism.
About the Research
Researchers analyzed data from a United Kingdom Biobank containing information from over 500,000 individuals between the ages of 37 and 73. Participants engaged in a personality assessment to gauge their neuroticism. They indicated whether they believed they were in poor, fair, good or excellent health. The collected data also included information about study participants' health behaviors such as physical activity, smoking, dietary habits etc. Information about participants' physical health such as blood pressure and body mass index was also gathered. Even information about medical diagnoses (cancer, heart issues etc.) and cognitive function was collected.
The research team examined death certificates from the National Health Service Central Registry. They determined nearly 5,000 of the participants perished in the follow-up period that averaged 6.25 years. The data indicated mortality was slightly higher in those with heightened levels of neuroticism. Once participants' self-rating of their own health was adjusted for, it was determined the direction of the mortality and neuroticism relationship was reversed. High levels of neuroticism were tied to a slightly decreased risk of death from cancer and other causes. It is interesting to note the protective effect was only found in those who rated their health as poor or fair.
The researchers also determined those who scored highly on one aspect of neuroticism connected to vulnerability and worry enjoyed a decreased risk of death independent of how they rated their personal health. These relationships did not vary based on participants' medical diagnoses or health behaviors at the point in time when they filled out the neuroticism questionnaire. Researchers were quite surprised about this finding.
Health behaviors like diet, smoking, exercise and consuming alcohol did not explain any aspect of the connection between the elevated scores on the vulnerability/worry facet and the risk of mortality. The researchers anticipated that a heightened level of worry or sense of vulnerability might spur people to behave in a much more healthy way and subsequently lower the chances for death. Yet this was not the case.
The Next Step
The researchers will conduct further investigation on the varied facets of neuroticism. Their long-term goal is to fully understand why vulnerability and worry seem to provide protective effects.
Catharine R. Gale et al, When Is Higher Neuroticism Protective Against Death? Findings From UK Biobank, Psychological Science (2017). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617709813