Chilling Out May Stave off Alzheimer’s

A new study links neurotic behavior and midlife stress to dementia in women

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Does your mood go up and down? Are you a worrier? Do you often feel tense, guilty, lonely, and distressed about life?

Women between the ages of 38 and 54 who already experience some of the above now have another thing to fret over: that “moodiness” might increase their risk for Alzheimer’s.

A study published in the journal Neurology identifies a link between women’s midlife neuroticism and the risk of developing dementia in their golden years—particularly in the form of Alzheimer’s disease. The sizeable study tracked 800 women for 38 years, beginning in 1968, then in 1974, 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2005. According to study author Lena Johansson, Ph.D., personalities were measured by the Eysenck Personality Inventory, a questionnaire that looks for introversion, extraversion, neuroticism, and stability as personality traits.

Just how does this test define neuroticism? “Emotional reactivity, anxiety, and psychosomatic concerns, ego-strength, and guilt proneness,” explained Johansson via email. On the other hand, the extraversion scale checked for sociability and positivity.

During the course of the study, 153 of the 800 women developed dementia, and more than two-thirds of those with dementia were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

While, based on the personality inventory, it seemed that women with a higher degree of neuroticism in midlife had an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, that wasn’t the only important psychological factor. “Women with high neuroticism and high perceived distress had the highest association with Alzheimer’s,” said Johansson. “High neurotic women without high perceived distress [did] not [have] a significant higher risk of Alzheimer’s.”

Women who tested high on neuroticism and low on extraversion had the highest risk of Alzheimer’s. Instead of directly linking neuroticism with dementia, Johansson said these personality traits may lead to lifestyle habits that could contribute to the increased risk. Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is linked to a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors that accumulate over years. While risk factors like aging and family history can’t be escaped (unfortunately), remedying a vitamin D deficiency could greatly reduce one’s chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s, according to another recent study published in Neurology. So too could cutting back on smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.

But when it comes to personality traits like being neurotic and introverted, if women work to change these traits while reducing feelings of distress—will they be able to reduce their risk of getting Alzheimer’s?

While study co-author Dr. Ingmar Skoog told a Reuters reporter that reducing midlife stress and neurotic tendencies may help stave off dementia, Johansson would not speculate, writing only that, “Future studies are needed!”