What Your Personality Reveals About Your Health

Being up for anything lifts your health, a new study says

Photo by Tabor Gus/Corbis

Are you as worry-prone as Woody Allen, or as chill as Seth Rogen? Your answer might give you a glimpse into your future. Certain personality traits make you more likely to develop serious diseases down the line, reports a study released this week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

A large body of research has linked personality traits to health outcomes such as mortality, disability, and general well-being. But most of the studies examined only one group of people at one point in time, making it difficult to say whether personality affects health, or vice versa, said study author Josh Jackson, of Washington University in St. Louis. “We didn’t know whether your personality affects your health, or if having a disease can change your personality or how you view yourself,” Jackson told Yahoo Health. “Our research is one of the first studies that has looked at how personality traits are associated with the onset of new diseases over time.”

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The researchers tracked nearly 7,000 U.S. adults ranging in age from the 30s to the 90s. At the start of the study, subjects filled out personality questionnaires and reported any preexisting health conditions, such as heart disease or cancer.

The questionnaires weren’t designed to classify people into distinct groups, like the type A and type B personalities you learned about in Psych 101. Instead, the researchers rated people on what experts call the Big Five personality traits. “The best way to characterize personality is not with types, but instead looking at a continuum—how much of this particular characteristic do you have,” Jackson said. “It’s not either-or, it’s an amount, and you can have a lot of one trait and very little of another.”

Personality traits can help protect against disease
Four years after the initial assessments, the study team followed up with subjects to see who reported a new health condition that they hadn’t had earlier. Then the team crunched the data to find out if high or low scores on any of the personality traits were linked to developing health problems.

“We found that two traits, conscientiousness and openness, serve as protective factors,” Jackson said. “Conscientious individuals are people who are reliable and able to control their impulses. Openness is best thought of as individuals who like to play with new ideas.” People with high scores on either scale were less likely to suffer from arthritis, stroke, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Over a lifetime, these personality differences influence our behaviors in countless ways that affect health. Conscientious people, for example, tend to exercise more, eat healthier, and abuse drugs and alcohol less frequently, studies show. They’re even more likely to buckle their seat belts, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Related: How Stress Messes With Your Workout

The connection between openness and disease isn’t as clear, however. “Individuals who are high in openness tend to like to do activities that are cognitively challenging, such as reading books and doing crossword puzzles, and there’s been some research that this is good for your health.” This might keep your problem-solving skills sharp so that you make better healthcare decisions. Open people tend to have better relationships with their doctors, according to a study published in Health Affairs. They may also be more likely to take steps to improve their health, such as trying a cutting-edge treatment or starting a low-sugar diet.

Neuroticism, conversely, was associated with poorer health, likely due to chronic stress, Jackson said. Chronic stress has been shown to weaken the body’s immune system and affects everything from stroke risk to how long wounds take to heal. An Ohio State University study published last year found that caregivers have significantly higher levels of inflammation-related chemicals in the blood compared with the general population.

What does your personality tell you?
While you can’t overhaul your personality, you can assume control of your health. Take a closer look at the three traits linked to health and see how to make the most of your natural makeup.

Conscientiousness
You’re conscientious if you are: Reliable, hardworking, organized, orderly. You can generally control your impulses. People know they can count on you to do things. Others view you as someone who “has it together.” Think: Chris Traeger from “Parks and Recreation.”
You’re not if you are: Lackadaisical, impulsive, unreliable. You don’t think things through. You tend to rush through tasks. Friends may think you’re undependable or flaky. Think: Homer Simpson from “The Simpsons.”
Health tip: If you’re not very conscientious, accept that you’re never going to be a schedule stickler—it’s not in your nature. Your best move: Excuse-proof your diet or workout plan, Jackson suggested. Pay for classes in advance, have a friend meet you for a run, or join an in-person weight-loss group.

Openness
You’re open if you are: Curious, intellectual, artistic, willing to try new experiences. You enjoy a mental challenge. Other people know you as someone who is game for anything. Think: Anthony Bourdain.
You’re not if you are: Conventional, stubborn, set in your ways. You like to do the same thing day in and day out. Think: Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory.”
Health tip: When it comes to exotic travel or cocktails with butter, there’s no harm in sticking with well-known comforts. But ask yourself when the benefits of trying something new outweigh the risks — such as when your doctor tells you it’s time to start popping a statin.

Neuroticism
You’re neurotic if you are: Anxious, worrisome, melancholy. You tend to overanalyze things. Think: Woody Allen.
You’re not if you are: Level-headed, collected, hard to faze. Even in stressful situations, you don’t freak out. Friends view you as emotionally stable. Think: President Jed Bartlet from “The West Wing.”
Health tip: Retrain your brain with meditation. Harvard research shows that only eight weeks of mindfulness meditation — which is as simple as sitting and focusing on your breathing — can physically change the gray matter in your brain in ways that may help you manage your emotions better.

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