Our personality predicts more than just the type of friends we may have. It also provides significant clues about our health and can even predict how long we might live.
Yet little is known about how our personality forms relative to what we know about its consequences on health across the lifespan.
Florida State University College of Medicine Assistant Professor Angelina Sutin is seeking answers with the help of a $2.8 million National Institutes of Health grant.
As part of a five-year study, her team will work to identify prenatal and childhood neighborhood risk factors contributing to the development of personality traits most consequential for healthy aging. A better understanding of these relationships is the first step toward earlier interventions for improving health outcomes.
A number of biological, social and behavioral influences affect pregnancy. Did the mother smoke, drink, use drugs, suffer from depression or experience physical or mental abuse?
In childhood, similar influences vary from child to child depending on where they lived and the relative socioeconomic factors in play.
“The broader goal is to understand where personality comes from in childhood to have a better sense of how we could intervene,” Sutin said. “One thing we are looking at, for example, is what factors might be involved in helping some kids to be more resilient than others.”
Sutin plans to integrate three established frameworks of health research addressing those factors into one theoretical model examining the influences on formation of personality — and the eventual health consequences. She will be assisted by FSU College of Medicine faculty researchers from the departments of behavioral sciences and social medicine, biomedical sciences and geriatrics.
The research centers on three longtime behavioral and biological health studies conducted in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. The studies, involving thousands of participants assessed over a span of several decades, look at risk factors ranging from prenatal health to childhood place of residence.
- The study from the United Kingdom includes more than 10,000 participants recruited in the early 1990s. Pregnant women agreed to give blood samples and answer questions about behavior such as smoking habits or use of drugs and alcohol. The majority of women, their partners and children continue to participate in regular assessments to examine environmental and genetic factors affecting health and development. “It’s great to have both biological markers from when the mom was pregnant, and behavioral and life-circumstance data when the mom was answering for what was happening in the moment, rather than recalling her memories of pregnancy from years earlier,” Sutin said.
- The study from Australia follows the development of 10,000 children and families from all parts of the country. Families with children 4 or 5 years old and families with infants up to age 1 were recruited into the study and are reassessed every two years. The study focuses on how social, economic and cultural environments affect a child’s adjustment and well-being.
- The study from the United States was designed to identify sources of persistent health disparities in overall longevity, cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease through influences of socioeconomic status. The study includes information on where about 2,000 children grew up and lived at age 16.
The U.S. study will allow Sutin to look more closely at relative neighborhood safety, family income and education and potential links with health outcomes.
“Even though the participants in these studies are from three completely different cultural contexts, if you grow up in vulnerable circumstances, regardless of where it is, it’s still vulnerable circumstances,” Sutin said. “We’re going to be able to look at that in early childhood with the Australian and the English data, young adulthood in the English data and middle adulthood into old age with the U.S. data.”
Leslie Beitsch, chair of the department of behavioral sciences and social medicine, said Sutin is renowned for her exceptional research.
“Dr. Sutin’s work is often cited in the lay press but is even more influential within health psychology academic circles, and it’s easy to understand why,” Beitsch said. “Projects like this offer the potential to unlock new therapeutic pathways that enable people to experience more optimal health across the life course.”
Sutin, College of Medicine Associate Professor of Geriatrics Antonio Terracciano and others have published research showing that those who show more conscientiousness generally experience better health outcomes and greater longevity. Neuroticism leads in the other direction.
Managing health behaviors associated with conscientiousness and neuroticism, then, could be an effective intervention to address health problems.
In the ongoing study, Sutin hopes to gain understanding about how these traits emerge, potentially leading to new ways of mitigating unwanted behaviors linked to personality.
“This project really began with thinking about where personality traits come from,” she said. “It makes more sense to intervene at the source rather than later in life.”