Personality Change in the Preclinical Phase of Alzheimer Disease

JAMA Psychiatry. Published online September 20, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2816

Personality Change in the Preclinical Phase of Alzheimer Disease

Antonio Terracciano, PhD1,2; Yang An, MS2; Angelina R. Sutin, PhD1,2; et al

Key Points

Question  Do changes in personality traits occur before the onset of mild cognitive impairment or clinical dementia?

Findings  In a cohort study that followed up 2046 older adults for as long as 36 years, no evidence of significant change in self-rated personality was found before the onset of mild cognitive impairment or clinical dementia.

Meaning  No personality changes that could be characterized as an early sign of dementia were found.


Importance  Changes in behavior and personality are 1 criterion for the diagnosis of dementia. It is unclear, however, whether such changes begin before the clinical onset of the disease.

Objective  To determine whether increases in neuroticism, declines in conscientiousness, and changes in other personality traits occur before the onset of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

Design, Setting, and Participants  A cohort of 2046 community-dwelling older adults who volunteered to participate in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging were included. The study examined personality and clinical assessments obtained between 1980 and July 13, 2016, from participants with no cognitive impairment at first assessment who were followed up for as long as 36 years (mean [SD], 12.05 [9.54] years). The self-report personality scales were not considered during consensus diagnostic conferences.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Change in self-rated personality traits assessed in the preclinical phase of Alzheimer disease and other dementias with the Revised NEO Personality Inventory, a 240-item questionnaire that assesses 30 facets, 6 for each of the 5 major dimensions: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Results  Of the 2046 participants, 931 [45.5%] were women; mean (SD) age at first assessment was 62.56 (14.63) years. During 24 569 person-years, mild cognitive impairment was diagnosed in 104 (5.1%) individuals, and all-cause dementia was diagnosed in 255 (12.5%) participants, including 194 (9.5%) with Alzheimer disease.

Multilevel modeling that accounted for age, sex, race, and educational level found significant differences on the intercept of several traits: individuals who developed dementia scored higher on neuroticism (β = 2.83; 95% CI, 1.44 to 4.22; P < .001) and lower on conscientiousness (β = −3.34; 95% CI, −4.93 to −1.75; P < .001) and extraversion (β = −1.74; 95% CI, −3.23 to −0.25; P = .02).

Change in personality (ie, slope), however, was not significantly different between the nonimpaired and the Alzheimer disease groups (eg, neuroticism: β = 0.00; 95% CI, −0.08 to 0.08; P = .91; conscientiousness: β = −0.06; 95% CI, −0.16 to 0.04; P = .24).

Slopes for individuals who developed mild cognitive impairment (eg, neuroticism: β = 0.00; 95% CI, −0.12 to 0.12; P = .98; conscientiousness: β = −0.09; 95% CI, −0.23 to 0.05; P = .18) and all-cause dementia (eg, neuroticism: β = 0.02; 95% CI, −0.06 to 0.10; P = .49; conscientiousness: β = −0.08; 95% CI, −0.16 to 0.00; P = .07) were also similar to those for nonimpaired participants.

Conclusions and Relevance  No evidence for preclinical change in personality before the onset of mild cognitive impairment or dementia was identified. These findings provide evidence against the reverse causality hypothesis and strengthen evidence for personality traits as a risk factor for dementia.


© 2017 American Medical Association.