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Personality can Drive or Hurt Preventive Health Care

Update Date: Mar 11, 2014 02:29 PM EDT

Preventive health care, which encompasses annual screenings as well as healthy nutrition and exercise, is designed so that people can lower their risk of diseases. Despite promoting preventive health care, many Americans continue to ignore signs of illnesses until they are forced into the hospital, which raise costs for themselves and the government. In a new study, researchers found that one key risk factor that might be affecting preventive care is personality.

"Health care reform provides a great opportunity for preventive care, with physicians seeing more young adults who may not previously have had insurance," said lead author Salomon Israel, PhD, of Duke University and Duke University Medical Center. "Our research found that if a doctor knows a patient's personality, it is possible to develop a more effective preventive health care plan that will result in a much healthier life."

For this study, the researchers examined personality traits in 1,037 people taken from a Dunedin, New Zealand health and development study. The participants were born between April 1972 and March 1973. As a part of that study, the participants, with the majority of them being males, were assessed every two years starting from birth through to age 38. When the participants turned 26, they had to asked someone who knew them extremely well to describe them using only the Big Five traits, which are extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience and conscientiousness. At 32, a clinic receptionist and nurse, who were unaware of the study's purpose, assessed the participants' personalities again using the Big Five traits.

On top of personality traits, the researchers collected information on the people's health as well as risk factors such as income, education, smoking, obesity and current or previous illnesses. The team also asked for the participant's family medical history. At the end of the study, when the participants turned 38, they all completed physical exams to look for certain health conditions, such as liver abnormalities, kidney problems, blood pressure, heart and lung fitness, vascular inflammation and periodontal disease, also known as gum disease.

The researchers reported that both personality assessments were similar to one another. People who were described as more conscientious tended to have healthier lifestyles. They were better at maintaining a good and nutritious diet and had better self-control over what they ate. They also were less likely to be smokers or alcohol/drug abusers.

"Among the least conscientious, 45 percent went on to develop multiple health problems by age 38, while just 18 percent of the most conscientious group developed health problems," Israel said according to the press release. "Individuals low in conscientiousness were more often overweight, had high cholesterol, inflammation, hypertension and greater rates of gum disease."

The researchers noted that they did not find a relationship between being neurotic at age 26 and poorer health by age 38. Based from other studies and theories, neuroticism has been tied to ill health due to higher stress and anxiety levels. Instead of finding that relationship, the researchers did note that neurotic people tended to self-report poor health more often than non-neurotic people. Even though personality traits are not readily changeable, by knowing why type of person a patient is could help doctors personalize preventive care.

"The best health care is one that treats the whole person including how their personality traits impacts their attitudes and behaviors vis-à-vis their health," said American Psychological Association (APA) Executive Director Norman B. Anderson, PhD, director of APA's Center for Psychology and Health.

The study, "Translating Personality Psychology to Help Personalize Preventive Medicine for Young Adult Patients," was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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