Optimistic people are often thought to live longer, but neurotic people might join them in living longer lives.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh analyzed the link between neuroticism and mortality rates in a recent study that took data from the UK Biobank. A sample of 321,456 people was taken, and researchers studied the influence of self-rated health on the relationship between neuroticism and mortality.
“People with higher levels of the personality trait neuroticism – the tendency to experience negative emotions – are more likely to rate their health as poor and to report somatic complaints,” the researchers wrote. “Given the evidence indicating that people with high levels of psychological distress are more likely to die sooner than people with lower levels, one might expect that higher neuroticism would be associated with increased mortality, but findings regarding this prediction are inconsistent.”
The researchers said high neuroticism does have its benefits. When someone is highly neurotic, they are also highly conscientious and can be vigilant about their health and visit the doctor more often than others for medical advice.
Another possible reason why neurotics live longer could be that they frequently self-rate their health as poor, the researchers wrote. The participants of the study were given a baseline survey by the UK Biobank and completed a 12 item neuroticism scale.
The participants were able to answer the questions with “true,” “false,” “do not know” and “prefer not to answer.” They were then asked how they would rate their health and responded with either “excellent,” “good,” “fair” or “poor.”
“After adjustment for self-rated health, higher neuroticism was associated with reduced mortality from cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease,” the researchers wrote. “Higher neuroticism was protective against mortality from all causes and from cancer only in participants who rated their health as fair or poor.”
The researchers also examined whether two neuroticism facets labeled “anxious-tense” and “worried-vulnerable,” which weren’t a part of the common neuroticism variance, were associated with mortality. The higher a participant scored on the worried-vulnerable facet, the lower their risk of death was from all causes.
“Higher scores on the worried-vulnerable facet were also associated with lower mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease,” the researchers wrote. “The anxious-tense facet was not associated with mortality.”
There was no indication that suggested that diet, exercise, smoking or drinking explained the link between neuroticism and the risk of death in participants who rated their health fair or poor. The researchers said the data from the study only looked at behaviors at the start of the study, and might not reflect the changes during or after the study took place.
The six factors of neuroticism — anxiety, angry-hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness and vulnerability — should be examined more closely to understand how the condition works in association with mortality rates, the researchers concluded.
“A study of the association between ‘nuances’ of neuroticism no doubt will also yield insights into when and why neuroticism might harm or protect health.”