Personality traits and chronic disease: Implications for adult personality development

Angelina R. Sutin, Alan B. Zonderman, Luigi Ferrucci, Antonio Terracciano

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective. Personality traits have been associated with chronic disease. Less is known about the longitudinal relation between personality and disease and whether chronic disease is associated with changes in personality. Method. Participants from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (N = 2,008) completed the Revised NEO Personality Inventory and a standard medical interview at regularly scheduled visits; the Charlson Comorbidity Index, a weighted sum of 19 serious diseases, was derived from this interview. Using data from 6,685 visits, we tested whether personality increased risk of disease and whether disease was associated with personality change. Results. Measured concurrently, neuroticism and conscientiousness were associated with greater disease burden. The impulsiveness facet of neuroticism was the strongest predictor of developing disease across the follow-up period: For every standard deviation increase in impulsiveness, there was a 26% increased risk of developing disease and a 36% increased risk of getting more ill. Personality traits changed only modestly with disease: As participants developed chronic illnesses, they became more conservative (decreased openness). Discussion. This research indicates that personality traits confer risk for disease, in part, through health-risk behaviors. These traits, however, were relatively resistant to the effect of serious disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)912-920
Number of pages9
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Disease burden
  • Illness
  • Openness
  • Personality change
  • Personality traits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Gerontology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Medicine(all)

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