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    Original Investigation
    October 16, 2019

    Association Between High School Personality Phenotype and Dementia 54 Years Later in Results From a National US Sample

    Author Affiliations
    • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York
    • 2Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York
    • 3American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC
    • 4Department of Neurology, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York
    • 5Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois
    JAMA Psychiatry. 2020;77(2):148-154. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.3120
    Key Points

    Question  Are maladaptive personality traits true risk factors for dementia or merely early expressions of underlying neuropathologic changes?

    Findings  In a cohort study of 82 232 participants, personality traits in adolescence—a time when dementia pathology is unlikely to be present—were a factor associated with incident dementia almost 5 decades later in a national US cohort. Calm and mature adolescents were less likely to develop dementia, and this risk reduction was significantly more pronounced with higher socioeconomic status.

    Meaning  This study’s findings suggest that maladaptive personality traits decades earlier may be independent risk factors for dementia by age 70 years.


    Importance  Personality phenotype has been associated with subsequent dementia in studies of older adults. However, neuropathologic changes often precede cognitive symptoms by many years and may affect personality itself. Therefore, it is unclear whether supposed dementia-prone personality profiles (high neuroticism and low conscientiousness) are true risk factors or merely reflections of preexisting disease.

    Objectives  To examine whether personality during adolescence—a time when preclinical dementia pathology is unlikely to be present—confers risk of dementia in later life and to test whether associations could be accounted for by health factors in adolescence or differed across socioeconomic status (SES).

    Design, Setting, and Participants  Cohort study in the United States. Participants were members of Project Talent, a national sample of high school students in 1960. Individuals were identified who received a dementia-associated International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision (ICD-9) diagnosis code during any year between 2011 and 2013. The dates of our analysis were March 2018 to May 2019.

    Exposures  Ten personality traits were measured by the 150-item Project Talent Personality Inventory. Socioeconomic status was measured by a composite based on parental educational level, income, occupation, and property ownership. Participants were also surveyed on demographic factors and height and weight.

    Main Outcomes and Measures  Medicare records were collected, with dementia diagnoses in the period of 2011 to 2013 classified according to the US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ICD-9–based algorithm. Cox proportional hazards regression models estimated the relative risk of dementia based on the 10 personality traits, testing interactions with SES and adjusting for demographic confounders.

    Results  The sample of 82 232 participants was 50.1% female, with a mean (SD) age of 15.8 (1.7) years at baseline and 69.5 (1.2) years at follow-up. Lower risk of dementia was associated with higher levels of vigor (hazard ratio for 1 SD, 0.93; 95% CI, 0.90-0.97; P < .001). Calm and maturity showed protective associations with later dementia that increased with SES. At 1 SD of SES, calm showed a hazard ratio of 0.89 (95% CI, 0.84-0.95; P < .001 for the interaction) and maturity showed a hazard ratio of 0.90 (95% CI, 0.85-0.96; P = .001 for the interaction).

    Conclusions and Relevance  This study’s findings suggest that the adolescent personality traits associated with later-life dementia are similar to those observed in studies of older persons. Moreover, the reduction in dementia risk associated with a calm and mature adolescent phenotype may be greater at higher levels of SES. 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.