January 23, 2015 at 12:53 pm #43814
note: This is an innovative and interesting question for western medicine to ask. Taoist medicine assumes the Qi flowing through your body-mind can be altered in order to improve health. – Michael
Could a Personality Test Improve Your Health?
By Anna North Op-Talk – Opinions From All Over
December 29, 2014 10:22 am December 29, 2014 10:22 am
Are you open to new experiences? Are you a risk taker? Do you like parties?
Odds are, questions like these were not part of your last doctors appointment. But one day they might be a growing body of research suggests that your personality can influence your health. And some experts think changing peoples personal traits might one day help treat diseases or keep people from getting them in the first place.
The research also comes at a time when many are calling for a more individualized approach to medicine. Some day, researchers hope, personality testing could be used to help your doctor design treatment specifically to you.
For a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, Kavita Vedhara and her co-authors gave personality tests to 121 people, and tested their blood to analyze the expression of genes related to inflammation. They found that the personality trait of extroversion was associated with increased expression of genes promoting inflammation. Meanwhile, conscientiousness, which the authors define as a trait reflecting planfulness, caution, and harm avoidance, was associated with decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes. Since inflammation can be part of the bodys response to infection, higher expression of pro-inflammatory genes can mean a more active immune system; lower expression can mean a relatively less active one.
It could be, the authors write, that people with weak immune systems become more introverted to protect themselves from infection (meet fewer people, get fewer germs). They might become more conscientious for the same reason. On the other hand, its possible that peoples personalities affect their gene expression people who go to a lot of fun, germy parties (or who are really bad at washing their hands) might start to undergo gene-expression changes that strengthen their immune systems.
This doesnt mean everybody should get a personality test, Dr. Vedhara told Op-Talk. But it does suggest that in general, a treatment approach that considers the patients psychological profile may be more effective than one that just looks at physical symptoms.
If youre confronted with a chronic condition like diabetes or heart disease, she explained, you may well have underlying beliefs about your condition which influence how likely you are to engage with treatment, you might have an emotional response to that condition which might influence your underlying physiology and your ability to recover or to manage your disease, you may well have an orientation which makes you more or less likely to exercise and looking at all of those factors as well as the physical manifestations of the condition itself might help doctors treat it better.
Most areas of medical intervention work quite well, she said, but I think that were on the brink of seeing a future where we use psychological interventions and behavioral interventions to maximize their efficacy.
Joshua Jackson, a psychology professor at Washington University, also sees understanding personality as a way to improve physical health. In a recent study, he and his co-authors looked at personality and longevity or, more specifically, at how your friends assessments of your personality might predict how long youll live. They found that men whose friends thought they were conscientious and open tended to live longer than those whose friends found them less so; for women, the traits associated with longer life were agreeableness and emotional stability. And friends assessments of subjects personalities were better than their own self-reports at predicting how long they would live.
Conscientiousness people, Dr. Jackson told Op-Talk, tend to eat their vegetables and exercise, as well as avoiding risky behaviors like driving without a seatbelt. They seem to just live a nice, buttoned-up and tidy life, which helps them live longer.
Open individuals, meanwhile, are not necessarily set in their ways, theyre able to change, theyre open to new experiences. So they may be amenable to altering their diets or making other changes that could improve their health. Openness may also be associated with a tendency to do mentally challenging activities like crosswords, Dr. Jackson noted, which may also promote good health.
He thinks the gender differences his team found may have to do with social mores in the 1930s, when the personality assessments were conducted. He and his co-authors write, It is likely that high levels of peer-rated emotional stability and agreeableness predict mortality because they largely assess positive characteristics indicative of a supportive and easy-going wife, such as that described in the social theory of the time. However, he told Op-Talk, some research suggests that personality within women has a less robust relationship with health and longevity.
Dr. Jackson sees a role for personality research beyond predicting when youre going to die. Understanding someones personality could help doctors determine which patients are going to have trouble following a new medication or exercise regimen (conscientious people, he said, are especially good at doing what their doctors tell them to do).
Hes also involved in research into how changes in personality might affect health. We know that personality changes across the life span people tend to become more conscientious and less neurotic over time but some people change more than others. And since personality traits are associated with health, altering those traits might make someone healthier or sicker.
Brent Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Dr. Jackson was once his student), has found that changes in personality can be linked to changes in health. That sets up an interesting possibility, he told Op-Talk: If personality can be altered, then it could be a target of intervention. People can become less neurotic with medication or therapy, he said, and if thats the case, then you have an interesting question about whether interventions like that could be used to help people be healthier at an earlier age because you could change their personality.
The psychiatry professor Benjamin Chapman says personality was long thought to be unchangeable: the term was, personality was set like plaster. But now, he told Op-Talk, some believe people can change their personalities if they want to: You might be able to change at least some aspect of conscientiousness in your 40s, for instance, and not get heart disease in your 60s.
Therapy is one way to change personality, he added, but its scale is necessarily limited. Psychotherapy for hundreds of thousands of people is not cost-effective, he said, and the question is whether this sort of thing can be accomplished with something thats less labor-intense and reaches more people. Some programs in schools, such as those that teach responsibility and goal setting, probably have a de facto effect on the shaping of personality and traits like conscientiousness, he noted. The tricky thing is, how would you do that later in life?
The time may be ripe for a focus on the personal. The personalized medicine movement, said Dr. Chapman, seeks to get a very individualized prediction of, will you get this disease, will this treatment work for you, how long will you live? Such predictions are usually made based on demographic information and risk factors like smoking, he said (some, like the chief executive of Englands National Health Service, have called for a personalized-medicine approach focusing on genetic information). But Dr. Chapman believes personality may be a useful element in such predictions: What weve suggested is that certain aspects of personality pick up on a very unspecified and general but highly relevant set of factors related to future health, and you might be able to augment those predictive models with personality-type measures.
Especially with the Affordable Care Act, he added, theres been a big shift in medicine toward patient satisfaction and patient-centered care. And collecting some information on patients personalities might be one way of fostering better relationships between patients and doctors: the question would be, can the doctor use that information to better understand the patient, better understand how to approach them, how to interpret their behavior? As Dr. Chapman, Dr. Roberts, and Paul Duberstein write in a 2011 review article in the Journal of Aging Research:
Personality assessment could improve the provision of patient-centered care because the physicians better understand how to approach and interact with different kinds of patients. The mere presence of these assessment tools in primary care waiting rooms would convey to patients that the provision of high quality health care is not solely about ordering diagnostic tests, arriving at the correct diagnosis, and prescribing appropriate treatments. It is also about expressing concern and empathy and understanding the patients perspective.
At The New York Timess Well Blog, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar writes, quality improvement in medicine is too often a blunt instrument. We try to take what works in certain situations and apply it to all situations. Our methods yield results for populations, not individual patients. And, he adds, a shift to more personalized medicine will be needed to continue to make the kind of progress to which patients and doctors have become accustomed.
Personality research could become part of such a shift. As Dr. Vedhara puts it, the individual who has the disease is almost as important as the underlying disease itself. So if medicine treated not only the pathology but the person with the pathology, it would probably get more bang for its buck.
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