The risk factors for certain health conditions are well-known — obesity and smoking are linked to heart disease, for example — but what about an employee’s personality traits?

When it comes to helping young adults avoid serious health problems later in life, assessing their personalities during routine medical exams could prove as useful as recording their family medical histories and smoking habits, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

"Health care reform provides a great opportunity for preventive care, with physicians seeing more young adults who may not previously have had insurance," said lead author Salomon Israel, PhD, of Duke University and Duke University Medical Center. "Our research found that if a doctor knows a patient's personality, it is possible to develop a more effective preventive health care plan that will result in a much healthier life."

Being conscientious appears to be the best bet for good health. Participants who were more conscientious when they were 26 years old were more likely to be in much better health at age 38 than those who were low in that personality trait, the study found.

"Among the least conscientious, 45% went on to develop multiple health problems by age 38, while just 18% 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 study noted. This could explain the apparent relationship between that trait and better health, the researchers said.

Other personality traits examined include being extroverted, being neurotic, agreeableness and openness to new experiences. Researchers say a surprising finding was that being neurotic at age 26 was not linked to poorer physical health at age 38, contrary to some theories that the stress and anxiety associated with being neurotic can lead to ill health. This was the case even though the neurotic participants rated themselves in poorer health at the later age, according to the study.

"Personality traits can be measured cheaply, easily and reliably, and these traits are stable over many years and have far-ranging effects on health," said Israel. "Our findings suggest that in addition to considering 'what' a patient has among risks for chronic age-related diseases, physicians can benefit from knowing 'who' the patient is in terms of personality in order to design effective preventive health care."

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