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Could Personality Decide How Well You Fight Disease?

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model.)

By Cheryl Steinberg

In recent years, research increasingly has been looking at how our personality types can impact our lives – and not just in the obvious ways, such as our social lives – but in other ways, like how our personalities can determine our health and wellbeing. For example, the differences between the morning person and the night owl in respect to their personality have long been talked about. But, when it comes to a scientific understanding of someone’s disposition, what exactly do we mean by our “personality?”

Personality can be defined as a collection of distinct psychological traits which remain fairly constant over time and therefore influence how we react to the world around us. These personality traits include whether we’re an extrovert or introvert – how sociable we are; our neuroticism – tendency towards negativity; and conscientiousness – how cautious we are and how carefully we plan.

Anyone with the slightest bit of self-awareness will know where they rank on each of these scales as well as how it impacts their relationships, the way they perform their jobs and even how they cope with adversity. But can these variables actually affect the state of our health?

Could Personality Decide How Well You Fight Disease?

A recently conducted study by Kavita Vadhara and colleagues was undertaken to see how different personality traits correlated with biological immune responses. In other words, how prepared – or unprepared – our bodies are to deal with threats to our immune system.

The results of their research led to some interesting insights into how personality type may affect our immune system.

For the study, the team had 121 healthy students complete personality questionnaires in order to assess extroversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness, among other traits. They also took blood samples and from the participants to investigate the activity of 19 different genes involved in inflammatory immune response, as well as genes involved in defense against viruses.

Inflammation is the body’s immune response to fight off infection as well as to speed up recovery from injury. The two most significant effects that Vedhara’s team noticed was that extroversion was associated with increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes, whereas conscientiousness had the opposite effect (decreased pro-inflammatory gene expression). These results suggest that extroverts have a greater ability to deal with infection and injury but there are downsides to increased levels of inflammation, including a higher probability of developing auto-immune diseases.

Keep in mind that, if you are an extrovert, your outgoingness doesn’t necessarily mean you may be better at fighting off illness; it’s important to note that these results are just an observation of a small population of people and are in no way solid proof of how well or how poorly an individual will deal with illness.

Whatever the cause of these interesting observations, the Nottingham study is an exciting milestone in the ongoing investigation into the link between personality and health, and the part that our immune system might play. The fact that personality traits could affect our inflammatory response, or vice versa, could have significant impacts in how we treat disease in the future.

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