CONTACT: MARY GERAGHTY KENYON
300 Plaza Centre One
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0011; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: July 1, 2002
(EDITORS NOTE: Christensen can be reached at (319) 335-3396 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
UI research shows connection between personality, death among chronically
a chronic disease struck the Hundred Acre Woods, who would live longer, Winnie
the Pooh or Eeyore? According to new research about how personality affects
survival rates in chronically ill patients, easy-going Pooh would have the
edge over his gloomy friend.
The research, published as the lead article in the July issue of the journal
Health Psychology, found that patients who were prone to depressed mood, pessimism
and excessive worrying were 37.5 percent more likely than the average patient
to die in an average four-year period, and that those who tended to be highly
conscientious, goal directed and dependable were 36.4 percent less likely
Alan Christensen, a professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal
Arts and Sciences, professor of internal medicine in the UI Carver College
of Medicine and the primary investigator, said this study provides the first
strong connection between personality and mortality among the chronically
"We've seen many decades of speculation about whether psychological
traits affect physical health, but until recently there has not been a lot
of good, hard evidence," he said.
In this study, Christensen and his team, including Dr. William Lawton, a
UI associate professor of internal medicine, followed 174 patients suffering
from chronic renal insufficiency (impaired kidney function.) Most of these
patients were expected someday to require dialysis treatments or a kidney
transplant to compensate for loss of kidney function.
Each patient completed a standard personality assessment at the outset consisting
of 60 questions designed to gauge five areas of personalityneuroticism,
conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to experience and agreeableness.
At follow-up, which ranged from 24 to 69 months depending on when the patients
were enrolled in the study, 49 (28.2 percent) of the patients had died.
The researchers also conducted extensive reviews of each patient's medical
history and physical status to control for such factors as age, diabetes,
heart disease and anemia, all of which can contribute significantly to mortality
in individuals with kidney disease. For example, each additional year in age
increased patients' risk of death 5.4 percent.
The study showed that both neuroticism and conscientiousness were significant
factors in predicting patient mortality beyond the effects of age and many
Neuroticism generally refers to having a negative outlook on life, being
prone to mildly depressed mood and excessive worrying. Those high in neuroticism
are generally not severely depressed or being treated for depression. Individuals
high in neuroticism may be at risk for poor health due to a reduction in immune
functioning or simply because they do not engage in healthy behaviors.
Conscientiousness refers to diligence, a strong sense of personal control
and a willingness to take on personal challenges. Those low in conscientiousness
may be lax about engaging in healthy behaviors and are known to be less willing
to follow prescribed medical treatments or advice. This reluctance to follow
important medical treatments may contribute to their decreased survival rates.
"The data suggest that it may be as important for patients and physicians
to think about patients' psychological traits, emotions and behaviors and
how they see and approach the world and themselves as it is to consider the
medical or physical status of the patient," Christensen said. "We
all know people who are not severely depressed but who chronically tend toward
moderate depression or anxiety. Typically we just think 'Oh, that's just how
they are,' and don't pay attention to it as a potentially important factor
in their physical health. This research shows that we should be paying attention
because these traits could be shortening their lives."
Although we don't usually think of such life-long enduring traits as being
easy to change, Christensen said that there is reason to believe individuals
can alter their degree of neuroticism and conscientiousness. Moreover, doctors
should be able to use information about how their patients' personalities
may be putting them at risk to judge how closely they need to be monitored
and how aggressively to treat them.
This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. In addition
to Christensen and Lawton, the research team included Shawna L. Ehlers, Patricia
J. Moran, Katherine Raichle, Karin Ferneyhough, all of the UI Department of
Psychology; and John S. Wiebe, of the University of Texas at El Paso Department