Young adults who are aggressive or cope badly with stress have a greater risk of suffering from memory problems decades later in middle age, a new study has revealed.
Swiss and American scientists carried out psychological tests on over 3,000 young men and women born between 1955 and 1968 to assess their levels of hostility, stress, and cognitive ability at the mean age of 25 years.
The study, published in Neurology, found that participants with the highest levels of aggressiveness or who coped badly with stress performed significantly worse on thinking and memory tests 25 years later compared with people who had the lowest levels.
“We found that having a generally unfriendly attitude or managing stress badly could have the same repercussions on cognitive abilities after the age of 50 as the act of ageing ten years can do,” declared Emiliano Albanese, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at University of Geneva, who took part in the study.
“People do not realise how far personality traits can influence their reasoning abilities or their memory,” he added.
The researchers used data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study (CARDIA) and monitored the evolution of cognitive functions among the 3,000 participants for over two decades.
Personality tests measured aggressive behaviour, a lack of trust for others, and negative feelings associated with social relationships. They also measured “effortful coping”, defined as actively trying to reduce stress despite repeated barriers to success.
In a cognitive test examining how well participants could recall a list of 15 words, those who had shown greatest hostility recalled on average of 0.16 fewer words and those who failed to cope with stress remembered 0.30 fewer words.
“It’s an observational study,” said Albanese. “It does not establish any direct cause or effect but shows that there is a strong association [between these different factors].”
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