Tyler Bell in black t-shirt in front of trees.
Published on: Nov 19, 2019

People often blame poor genetics or lack of mental stimulation for cognitive decline with aging. While those can play a role, new research suggests that certain personality and temperament traits in older adults can cause personal problem-solving skills and can impact everyday cognitive functioning.

Previous studies have identified links between depression and anxiety with an individual’s own perception of their memory and thinking. Studies have also shown a correlation between personality traits and cognitive function. Now, researchers at Penn State College of Nursing are working to pinpoint when predictive personality traits emerge and how that understanding can be used in the clinical setting.

Tyler Bell, a post-doctoral scholar in Penn State’s College of Nursing, recently published the results of his study on older adults’ personality determinants of subjective executive function in the scientific journal Aging & Mental Health. Bell collaborated with Nikki Hill, assistant professor of nursing at Penn State, and Despina Stavrinos, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama.

“By 2050, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is going to double and along with that is going to be an estimated economic impact of over one trillion dollars. Even at the current $200 billion economic costs, we’re barely managing it,” said Bell. “I’m interested in time-hopping backward and looking at the earliest points of trait and character development and knowing how they affect your Alzheimer’s risk.”

The research study conducted by Bell and his partners investigated the effects of temperament — negative affect and effortful control — and the Big Five personality traits — openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — and how they can affect an individual’s cognitive function over time.

“Research is showing that an individual’s personality stabilizes by adolescence and carries over into adulthood, and before that, temperament is stabilized as a toddler,” Bell said.

Bell and his research partners hypothesized that individuals with more analytical thinking — known as conscientiousness— the better the individual will perform everyday problem-solving tasks, like multitasking or remembering a phone number while someone talks to you; while negative thinking — negative affect and neuroticism — would be related to declined problem-solving abilities.

“While analytical thinking may sharpen your problem-solving skills, negative thinking translates into tendencies to distress when you don’t achieve something, and those reactions might worsen problem-solving skills over time — especially through fear and the avoidance of cognitive challenges.”

This research was conducted with two samples drawn from a large Southeastern community. Eligible participants were 65 years of age or older and cognitively unimpaired, defined as their ability to accurately report their orientation in space and time, recollect words, respond to simple knowledge questions, and complete mental arithmetic.

“Often people describe their cognition in terms of memory, but a lot of times that’s not actually the problem. How they problem-solve using memory might more accurately depict their problems with cognitive function,” Bell said.

After participant assessment and observation, Bell and his colleagues examined how personality affected everyday problem-solving with key observations. Notably, older adults with higher analytical thinking reported better every day problem-solving, which is likely due to the tendency of those higher in analytical thinking to stay on-task and focus on relevant information. No effects were seen regarding tendencies to being open to new experiences or being extraverted, however.

Conversely, negative thinking predicted greater problems in everyday problem-solving, aligning with previous work showing that higher levels of these traits are related to greater self-reported cognitive problems, but it also extends previous research, showing that these traits relate to episodic memory loss.

Although further study is needed with clinical samples, Bell suggests these findings may indicate that problems in everyday problem-solving might be the first symptom of personality-related reports of cognitive decline before serious issues emerge. Alternatively, some people might be overconcerned about their problem-solving skills due to personality tendencies in how they interpret normal cognitive problems. Such worries are still important to address, as they harm older adult quality of life and increase stress. 

“Most of my work has looked at personality, coping, and stress — factors key for early cognitive development. This is my first time extending this work in older adults and it has reconfirmed my commitment to exploring these factors throughout the lifespan,” said Bell. “The College of Nursing has a lot of clinical expertise in this area, so it has been really helpful to work in an interdisciplinary setting to translate these theoretical questions into findings with a potential meaning for public health.”

The research findings hold important implications for improving understanding, and ultimately clinical assessment, of self-reports of cognition. Understanding that distressful inclinations are associated with more reported problems in everyday problem-solving can help healthcare providers make more well-informed care decisions for older adults.

“I hope that people take away that even if an older adult isn’t impaired on clinical cognitive tests, their personality can impact everyday problem-solving and might impact future cognitive decline. This will be important to determine as protecting cognitive development in vulnerable personalities might deter irreparable cognitive impairment,” Bell said.

Bell and his colleagues look to further research the impact of health conditions and examine if enhanced negative thinking coupled with disengagement from analytical thinking predicts problems in everyday problem solving over time.