Personality: Life Span Compass for Health

Article excerpt


Personality is crucial for understanding health in later life. Yet classic conceptions of personality with emphasis on stability may have limited the empirical attention it deserved in relation to health. This chapter highlights the six foci of a personality model that integrates structures and processes within a level-of-analysis framework that affords increased opportunities for health interventions and changes. The first level of the six-foci model includes traits, the broad and universal descriptions of a person that are relatively stable across time, and states, the moment-to-moment changes a person experiences. The second level of the six-foci model is composed of personal action constructs that emphasize the goal directedness of behavior and the self-regulatory processes involved in working toward goals. The third level of the six-foci model includes the life story, and processes of self-narration, such as remembering, reminiscing, and storytelling necessary for creating life stories. Brief reviews of relevant health research and suggestions for future research are highlighted in the overview. A compass metaphor portrays the dynamics and overall direction that personality provides for developmental health trajectories and lives. Results from the UNC Alumni Heart Study, a long-term longitudinal study of traits and risk factors for disease and health outcomes, are reviewed. The emerging literature on personality and its relationship to Alzheimer's disease is also examined. The last section of the chapter is a review of micro-longitudinal, state-like "in situ" studies of personality and health with dense measurements over more limited temporal spans. The time-sampling studies require new methodological approaches that are providing intriguing new evidence of how personality in context creates health and increases our understanding of development in adulthood.


Personality may be one of the most under-recognized determinants of late life health. Yet, what kind of person you are, how you form and sustain relationships, how easy or difficult it is for you to set and meet your goals, how you react to crises, and what type of life you are building are essential aspects of personality and crucial for determining health. Our approach to understanding personality and health in later life is grounded in a life span developmental framework (e.g., Aldwin, Spiro, & Park, 2006; Spiro, 2007). Originating in adult development and aging (Baltes, 1987; Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006), this approach is being utilized in the health sciences as well (Kuh & Ben-Shlomo, 2004) and emphasizes that health is created as a lifelong process that begins before birth in the intrauterine environment (Barker, 1990), has genetic origins, and develops or changes through all phases of life as a result of gene-environment interactions, individuals' behaviors, and contextual influences.

The life span approach highlights processes that amplify initial differences over time (Light, Grigsby, & Bligh, 1996), acknowledges the importance of timing of events in the life course, recognizes that historical trends impact lives, and strives to understand how linked lives create change by examining the changing individual in changing social context (Settersten & Trauten, 2008). Typically in early adulthood people make decisions (e.g., what career to pursue, whether to get married, what kind of lifestyle to live, whether to become parents, and so on) that have an enormous impact on how later life is experienced. Personality is related to these important life outcomes such as marital status, occupation, well-being, and even how long you live (e.g., Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005; Mroczek & Spiro, 2007; Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006). Furthermore, personality is as important as socioeconomic status (SES) and IQ in predicting these important life outcomes (Roberts, Kuncel, Shiner, Caspi, & Goldberg, 2007). …