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Docs should check personalities of younger patients

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MONDAY, March 17, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A new study suggests that personality assessments of young adult patients might help doctors do a better job of treating them as they age.

"Health care reform provides a great opportunity for preventive care, with physicians seeing more young adults who may not previously have had insurance," study author Salomon Israel, of Duke University, said in a news release from the American Psychological Association.

"Our research found that if a doctor knows a patient's personality, it is possible to develop a more effective preventive health care plan that will result in a much healthier life," Israel said.

The study authors examined assessments of more than 1,000 New Zealand residents born in 1972 and 1973. They were tracked until the age of 38, and given various surveys and medical tests.

Researchers also monitored their medical records. When they were 26, the researchers sought people who knew them to give assessments of their personalities.

The research suggests that being conscientious is most important to good health when compared to four other traits -- being an extrovert, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience. The researchers found that those who were most conscientious at the age of 26 were more likely to be in much better health at the age of 38, at least compared to those who were least conscientious.

"Among the least conscientious, 45 percent went on to develop multiple health problems by age 38, while just 18 percent of the most conscientious group developed health problems," Israel said. "Individuals low in conscientiousness were more often overweight, had high cholesterol, inflammation, hypertension and greater rates of gum disease."

Why is being conscientious so important? Better health might actually not have anything directly to do with the personality trait but instead be connected to the way conscientious people live. They're more likely to do things such as have active lifestyles, eat healthy foods and control themselves around temptations such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

The study had one surprise: The most neurotic 26-year-olds didn't become the sickest 38-year-olds.

"Personality traits can be measured cheaply, easily and reliably, and these traits are stable over many years and have far-ranging effects on health," Israel said.

"Our findings suggest that, in addition to considering what a patient has among risks for chronic age-related diseases, physicians can benefit from knowing who the patient is in terms of personality in order to design effective preventive health care."

The study appears in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

More information

For more about anxiety, which can lead to worse physical health, try the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

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