‘I hope my brain hasn’t shrunk too much yet’

Nov 30, 2022
Eliminating stress important in maintaining cognitive function. Source: Getty

For those who were lucky enough to be born to good parents, it doesn’t take long to realise how powerful their influence can be on their children. Undoubtedly it differs within families, communities, and cultures. It all depends on the environment in which we were raised.

In my family, we were raised to be mentally and physically active daily. During breakfast, my father would complete a crossword every day until he passed away at 86. He continued to be intelligent, alert, and physically active until close to the end. I clearly remember him saying you must puff every day and keep your mind active Ruthie

My mother was the same, her mental stimulation was crafting beautiful creations with her sewing, knitting, and crochet skills, plus a huge garden to maintain. Mum, even with her arthritic fingers, recovered the fabric on our large modular lounge suite not long before she died. She never complained nor sat down for long.

Sadly, for both my parents it was other illnesses that caught up with them, yet neither of them suffered from dementia nor cognitive decline and I am certain their lifestyles and eating habits were the biggest contributors. Unfortunately, their biggest enemy was smoking, they only gave it up in their later years when it was affecting their health.  

They have been my driving force to exercise my body and brain regularly. Like many of my friends, I am keen to stay on top of things and be mentally and physically active to retain my independence, maintain my free will, and feel good about myself. 

How personality is linked to the risk of dementia and cognitive decline

Even so, we should never take our health for granted, so I was keen to share some interesting information that caught my eye. There is new research based on a study that involved nearly 2,000 people with different personality types and how they may contribute to dementia or cognitive decline.  

 It found links between personality traits and the likelihood of moving toward or away from dementia. Being a driven extrovert I wanted to know if this was good or bad!

The researchers compared two individual types and monitored them from when they were young, and then later in their upper seventies. 

The first types were highly organised with excellent self-discipline, many using post-it notes. The second were worriers who were more frazzled and emotionally unstable.

It was found that the worrying types were more prone to suffering from cognitive decline, possibly dementia, from exposure to consistent situations of high stress and anxiety that can damage the brain long term. The people who were more organised and thus productive were protecting their brains as they were not subjected to damaging ongoing stress over time. 

Our personalities shape our behaviour and thought patterns, influencing our physical and mental health, with neurotic people experiencing more years of cognitive decline. But, we must consider this is a new research outcome and only a novel understanding of how personality traits can hasten or slow the transitions between cognitive statuses and death. 

Impacts of Personality traits on our well being

Another study has found how personality traits impact our physical and mental well-being through patterns of helpful or unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, and that personality traits can affect our cognitive functioning as we age. Also, persistent stress could lead to high cortisol levels that cause more rapid brain shrinkage, associated with Alzheimer’s. 

We all know ongoing stress is not good and I thrived on it during my working world, but as a retiree, I question why? Yet I always like to be organised as much as possible. It reduces my stress levels. I hope my brain hasn’t shrunk too much yet, I say with a smile. 

Characteristics we can work on to prevent cognitive decline

A potential strategy to promote healthy cognitive ageing is to increase our conscientiousness. For example, an 80-year-old high in conscientiousness means they could gain another two additional years without cognitive impairment.

Prioritise your stresses and question their importance and relevance. Sometimes it is the conversation in our heads that causes the most anxiety.

Friendliness, being open and outgoing, helping others, being forgiving, and being curious and perceptive, are all positives. 

So all is not gloom and doom if we are willing to challenge and modify our behaviours.

The evidence suggests that our quality of life can be better than anticipated as we age. 

 

Reference & acknowledgments:

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