Study: Being a 'Healthy' Degree of Neurotic Lowers Risk of Chronic Disease

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Good news for those with neurosis. Try not to overthink it.

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Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

PROBLEM: Common sense would have it that neurotic people -- anxious worriers, depressives, those who are quick to anger and to self-medicate -- might not be in the best of health. Especially not when compared to those who fall under the other "Big Five" personality dimensions: openness, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (you can take a test to find out what best describes you here). Of the five, it could logically be predicted that people with the highest degrees of neuroticism would also have the highest levels of inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, and some cancers. 

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the University of Rochester are in the middle of a large project that looks at the way personality traits, by causing us to act in certain healthy or unhealthy ways, influence our biology, and thus become risk factors for future health problems. Their data is derived from a national sampling of 1,054 adults, whose disease-related biomarkers, physiological health, and personality traits were all evaluated. For the current study, the researchers used blood tests to assess the subjects' levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a biomarker for inflammation, over the course of five years. 

RESULTS: Contrary to what the researchers predicted, neuroticism was associated with decreased levels of IL-6 -- and this association grew stronger when subjects also scored high for conscientiousness. The 441 subjects who scored moderate to high for both personality traits at once had lower levels of IL-6 than those who were high in only one or the other. They also tended to have lower BMIs and fewer diagnosed chronic health conditions. When the researchers adjusted for smoking and alcohol consumption, this association diminished, but remained significant.

CONCLUSION: When accompanied by high levels of conscientiousness, the researchers concluded, neuroticism may actually be associated with health benefits.

IMPLICATIONS: What emerges from the combination of these two personality traits that might contribute to greater health? Lead author Nicholas Turiano hypothesized, "These people are likely to weigh the consequences of their actions, and therefore their level of neuroticism coupled with conscientiousness probably stops them from engaging in risky behaviors." He also speculates that they translate their anxiety into hyper-vigilance about healthy living, and that they are quick to seek treatment when they detect health problems. 

In other words, at the intersection of neuroticism and conscientiousness exists the "healthy neurotic" -- still anxious, but with enough self-discipline to control for associated bad behaviors like drinking, smoking, and overeating. 

The full study, "Big 5 personality traits and interleukin-6: Evidence for 'healthy Neuroticism' in a US population sample" is published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity .

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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