Being Neurotic Is Good for Your Health—To a Point

A recent study linked neuroticism with longer lives.

Jul 28 2017, 1:47pm

Lukasz Wierzbowski

After years of being consumed with worry and anxiety, neurotic people may have some good news—a new study has found an association between neuroticism and a longer life.

For years, researchers have explored the relationship between mortality and neuroticism, which the scientists behind the current study define as "the tendency to experience negative emotions." Neuroticism should logically decrease a person's lifespan since it often manifests as stress and anxiety, which have been linked to shorter lives. But the findings from past studies have been mixed and inconsistent—some found that neuroticism extends life, others found that it reduces it.

This is in part because many of the studies include predictors and outcomes that overlap, leading to confounding results, says Howard Friedman, distinguished professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and the author of the book The Longevity Project.

That inconsistency piqued the curiosity of the researchers behind the current study, recently published in the journal Psychological Science. They started with data from more than 320,000 people ages 37 to 73 as part of a publicly available database called the UK Biobank. Each participant was asked to complete a 12-item questionnaire to assess his or her neuroticism and a self-assessment of his or her health level. These surveys were combined with demographic and health information such as drinking habits, frequency of vegetable intake and physical activity, and body mass index. Six years after the data was collected, the researchers checked to see how many of the original group had died (about 4,500, or approximately 1.4 percent of the original sample), and of what cause.

At first, the results seemed to show that more neurotic people lived shorter lives. But, after the researchers adjusted the data based on how participants rated their own health, they found that people with higher levels of neuroticism had a lower risk of death no matter the cause—about a 10 percent reduction in mortality, Catharine Gale, a reader of psychology at the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of the study, tells Tonic.

Gale and her co-authors suspect that neurotic people are more likely to pay attention if something seems a little off in their bodies. "[Neurotic people] might go to the doctor sooner and get diagnosed earlier," Gale says. Friedman calls this "healthy neuroticism." "If the vigilance and worrying concern of neuroticism is paired in the right circumstances with the prudence and responsibility of being conscientious, then very healthy patterns may be the result," says Friedman, who was not involved in the new research.

But the association between neuroticism and a longer life was only present for people with neuroticism characterized by more feelings of worry and vulnerability rather than those of anxiety and depression—and it only pertained to those who evaluated their own health as fair or poor. Stranger still, high levels of neuroticism didn't translate into improved health habits or behaviors, like not smoking and getting enough exercise. Gale and her team are still trying to figure out exactly why that may be the case, though she didn't want to tell Tonic exactly what her team was doing because the dataset is public and plenty of other research teams are competing to use it for similar studies.

Friedman calls the work "an excellent study that includes reliable personality predictors, relevant demographic controls, an assortment of important health behaviors, excellent analyses, and key objective outcomes of longevity and cause of death.

"This also fits with the observation that it is more important to be worrying and anxious about your health when you have a serious challenge or disease and need to seek help, get good treatments, and cooperate with treatments," he adds.

This isn't a huge upside to being neurotic, Gale points out—it's only a 10 percent reduction in mortality for some. "If being a 'neurotic mess' means being chronically unable to sleep well or interferes with having good relationships with healthy friends, then it turns harmful," Friedman says. But in general there is definitely an upside to being a worrier—"especially if it leads you to be forward-thinking and to take protective action," he adds.

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