MONDAY, July 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you have a serious chronic illness, a pessimistic personality may shorten your life.

That's the conclusion of a new study by University of Iowa scientists that contends if you're a take-charge, conscientious person, you're more likely to live longer.

In other words, you should think like Tiger Woods, not Woody Allen.

In the study of 174 men and women who suffered from chronic kidney disease, the researchers found those who were prone to excessive worry and general anxiety were nearly 40 percent more likely to die over a four-year period than the average patient. Conversely, those who were upbeat, dependable and goal-oriented were almost 40 percent more likely to live longer over a four-year period than the average patient.

"We have confirmed what research and clinical work and many other people have speculated, that there is a link between personality style and physical health," says Alan Christensen, a professor of psychology and internal medicine at the University of Iowa. He's the lead author of the study, which appears in the July issue of Health Psychology. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Many studies of this topic have been based on variables such as self-reported symptoms and visits to the doctor. However, the data for this study, Christensen says, was much more solid because the research was "unfortunately based on the significant mortality rates for chronic renal unsufficiency."

For their study, Christensen and his colleagues interviewed men and women in the early stages of chronic kidney disease, a life-threatening condition in which the kidneys don't function properly.

"We wanted to assess personalities before the patients showed symptoms of kidney disease," he says, so the results wouldn't be skewed by anxieties that come with advancing illness.

The patients, whose average age was 56, were given a standard personality assessment test of 60 questions that gauged five personality areas: neuroticism; conscientiousness; extroversion; openness to experience and agreeableness.

They were then followed for two to five years, with the average follow-up being four years. Forty-nine of the patients died during this time.

What the researchers found -- after controlling for age, diabetes and anemia, which are the other major causes for mortality -- was that those who had scored high on the neurotic assessment were 37.5 percent more likely to have died over the four years than the average patient.

Meanwhile, those who received high marks for conscientiousness, which indicates a diligence and willingness to take on challenges, were 36.4 percent less likely to die over the four-year period than the average patients, Christensen says.

The question, he adds, is "how these personality styles affect health-related behaviors."

He says people who tend to worry or be in a mildly depressed mood might not take good care of themselves, while those who are more conscientious "tend to comply with medical advice, and are more likely to see a doctor if they're sick."

Dr. Joyce Gonin, who treats patients with chronic kidney disease at Georgetown University Hospital, says, "It is very clear that the mood of the patient will indicate if the patient will comply with the medication and treatment. All too frequently, patients become depressed and skip their dialysis session."

"On the other hand, the more motivated a patient is, the more educated he or she becomes about the disease, the more control they have over their illness, the less likely it is you will see preventable complications," she says.

Because of this, she always assesses the emotional health of her patients.

"You can't deal with the chronically ill patient without taking into account the psychological-social factors," Gonin says.

Adds Christensen: "There also may be a physiological component to personality. We know there's some relationship. Patients that have chronically negative emotions tend to be immunosuppressed."

What To Do

Information about dealing with chronic illness can be found at The Menniger Letter. To learn more about kidney failure, visit the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

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