New research suggests that women who are more anxious and less social in middle age have a much higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s later in life.

Most research on Alzheimer’s disease looks at health measures and genetic causes, but new research has found that women who describe themselves as having certain personality traits when they are in their late thirties to early fifties might also have double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s as they age.

Researchers in Sweden and the United States found that women who scored highly on measures of emotional stress and described themselves as being less sociable when they were in middle age were up to 2.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease over the following 38 years.

Almost two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s disease are women. Symptoms of the disease include memory loss, problems with words, and a loss of good judgment skills.

The two traits study investigators focused on were measures of extraversion, meaning how sociable the women were, and neuroticism, which is defined by features such as more emotional anxiety and being more likely to feel guilt. A personality test was administered to 800 Swedish women in 1968 and researchers followed up with interviews and medical records over the ensuing 38 years to review their health outcomes. Among these women, 104 developed Alzheimer’s disease.

While women whose personality test showed more neuroticism and introversion were 2.5 times more likely to have developed the illness at the end of the study period, the effect was not found in women who only exhibited one trait or the other when they were younger.

Study investigator, Lena Johansson, PhD, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, says she was motivated to do the study because she finds her patients who have longstading stress, depression, or sleeplessness also seem to have problems with memory.

Women who are concerned have steps they can take, says Dr. Johansson, such as taking a hard look at their lifestyle. “Be aware of severe and long-standing stress-symptoms if you have long-standing problems with sleep, worry, anxiety, and moodiness,” she says. “Do what you can to lower the stress with lifestyle changes, physical activities, and cognitive therapy.”

Some data analysis from the study, which was published online yesterday in the journal Neurology, also indicates that not all women with these personality traits had an elevated Alzheimer’s risk. Those who had them and felt they were stressed were the ones who saw their risk increase.

“The personality was clearly associated with stress load, but those women who had a stress-prone, sensitive, neurotic personality, but not perceived stress symptoms, did not have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s,” says Johansson.

Investigators also believe that more research needs to be done to understand how life events may be affecting brain chemistry and may lead to Alzheimer’s development.

“There are measurements of stress, such as biochemical measurements [that track] brain changes,” says Hartley. “Those are things we need to know more about in order to associate how much stress is related to Alzheimer’s disease.”

But while researchers sort out the chemical basis of Alzheimer’s, people hoping to avoid the ailment can still follow current guidelines for brain health, says Hartley.

“Physical exercise, social engagement, and staying mentally active are things that promote good brain health and may lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”


Johansson et al (2014). Midlife personality and risk of Alzheimer’s disease and distress: a 38 year follow-up. Neurology, 83(17), 1538-1544.