Having a hostile attitude or poor coping skills in young adulthood may be linked to greater problems with memory and thinking in later life, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
“We may not think of our personality traits as having any bearing on how well we think or remember things, but we found that the effect of having a hostile attitude and poor coping skills on thinking ability was similar to the effect of more than a decade of aging,” said study author Lenore J. Launer, Ph.D., with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
At the start of the study, American and Swiss scientists surveyed 3,126 individuals at an average age of 25. The researchers asked questions that measured the participants’ personalities and attitudes, their ability to cope with stress, and their memory and thinking skills.
Then, 25 years later, their cognitive abilities were measured again when the participants were an average age of 50.
To gauge hostility, the participants were asked to report aggressive behavior, a lack of trust for others and/or any negative feelings associated with social relationships. Another question looked at effortful coping, which was defined as actively trying to reduce stress despite encountering repeated obstacles. Participants were divided into four groups based on their level of hostility and effortful coping.
The findings showed that those with the highest levels of hostility and poor coping skills performed worse on tests of thinking and memory skills 25 years later than people with the lowest levels of the traits.
For example, on a test that asks people to recall a list of 15 words, people with the most hostility in young adulthood remembered 0.16 fewer words in mid-life than participants with the least hostility. Those who failed to cope with stress remembered up to 0.30 fewer words than those with the lowest level of effortful coping.
The results remained consistent even after researchers adjusted for factors such as depression, negative life events, and discrimination. When they adjusted for cardiovascular risk factors such as diabetes and high blood pressure, however, the findings stayed the same for the coping trait but the link between hostility and thinking skills was reduced.
Launer noted that the study is observational and does not prove that hostile attitudes and poor coping skills cause memory and thinking impairment; it only shows the association.
“If this link is found in other studies,” she said, “it will be important to understand whether these personality traits are amenable to change that would lead to interventions that promote positive social interactions and coping skills, to see if they could play a role in reducing people’s risk for memory and thinking problems in middle age.”