Your High School Persona Can Predict Your Risk of Dementia

Brain. Athlete. Basket case. Princess. Criminal—can your high school persona predict your health decades later?

It might seem far-fetched but a team of researchers in the U.S. have found evidence to suggest the personality traits you display during teenagehood may be an indicator for your risk of being diagnosed with dementia in later life.

According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, students that displayed higher levels of maturity and calmness were less likely to develop dementia in older age, or develop the condition later. Meanwhile those that displayed higher levels of impulsivity were more likely to be diagnosed with the condition, and also more likely to develop it an earlier stage.

Previous studies have shown that there are correlations between particular personality phenotypes and the development of dementia in older adults but little on whether associations can be traced back to adolescence.

Because neuropathologic changes can take place years before symptoms become noticeable and because personality changes may be a consequence (not cause) of dementia, it becomes hard to determine whether "dementia-prone personality profiles" are risk factors or a sign of the disease, even if it is yet to be diagnosed. These profiles include traits like high neuroticism and low conscientiousness.

Researchers hope that by studying adolescent personality—before even the earliest stages of the disease are likely to be present—they will be able to improve the understanding of the link between personality and disease.

Scene from 'The Breakfast Club'
Ally Sheedy as Allison and Molly Ringwald as Claire—two-fifths of 'The Breakfast Club' in the 1985 movie by John Hughes. Universal Pictures/Getty

Lead researcher Benjamin P. Chapman from the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, and colleagues measured 10 personality traits in a group of 82,232 adults (mean age 69.5 years old) who would have been high school students in 1960, using a 150-item Project Talent Personality Inventory. They then identified those who had been diagnosed with dementia between 2011 and 2013—a number that amounted to 2,543 (or 3.1 percent) of the total.

Even after factors such as height, weight, income, occupation and socioeconomic status had been taken into consideration, the study authors note significant correlations between certain personality traits and dementia risk.

While the results suggest that high levels of extraversion (or vigor), maturity and calmness are associated with a lower rate of dementia diagnosis, high levels of impulsivity appear to be associated with a higher rate of diagnosis.

As the authors point out, a mean age of 69.5 years old limits the findings to early-onset dementia and it is unclear whether or not the same associations would apply to people in their seventies and eighties, or older. Nonetheless, they conclude their findings suggest "the adolescent personality traits associated with later-life dementia are similar to those observed in studies of older persons."

"Personality phenotype may be a true independent risk factor for dementia by age 70 years, preceding it by almost 5 decades and interacting with adolescent socioeconomic conditions."