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Assessing patient personality more helpful than family history

  |   March 13, 2014 at 9:58 AM
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DURHAM, N.C., March 13 (UPI) -- Assessing the personalities of patients during routine medical exams could prove as useful as recording their family medical histories, U.S. researchers say.

"Healthcare reform provides a great opportunity for preventive care, with physicians seeing more young adults who might not previously have had insurance," lead author Salomon Israel of Duke University and Duke University Medical Center, said in a statement.

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

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found being conscientious appears to be the best bet for good health among traits known as the "Big Five," which are the basis for most psychological personality assessments. The Big Five also include extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience.

The researchers examined data from a Dunedin, New Zealand, study involving 1,037 people born from April 1972 to March 1973. Slightly more than half the subjects were male. The participants were assessed about every two years from birth until they were age 38. At age 26, the participants nominated a person who knew them well, such as a parent, spouse or friend, to describe them using the Big Five traits.

The researchers also gathered participants' clinical health information and risk factors commonly recorded in primary care offices, including income, education, smoking, obesity, current and past illnesses and family medical history.

"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."

Conscientious people are more likely to have active lifestyles, maintain healthy diets and have more self-control, so are less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol and drugs, the researchers noted.

However, a surprising find was that being neurotic at age 26 was not linked to poorer physical health at age 38. This was the case even though the neurotic participants rated themselves in poorer health at the later age, the researchers said.

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