Young adults who display hostile attitudes and who find it hard to cope with stress may experience memory and thinking problems in later life, according to a study published online in the journal Neurology.

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Aggression and hostility could have implications for cognitive function in years to come.

Psychological features can impact an individual’s perception of and response to stressful experiences.

There is evidence that a hostile attitude, for example, may lower the activation threshold of the stress response. It could also have an impact on cognitive function and on vascular risk profiles that relate to cognitive impairment.

Lenore J. Launer, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, and colleagues surveyed 3,126 people at two stages in their life.

At the average age of 25, participants answered questions that measured their personalities and attitudes, ability to cope with stress and memory and thinking abilities.

The same cognitive abilities were measured again when they reached an average age of 50.

Personality-related questions were used to measure levels of hostility. The questions were designed to assess aggressive behavior, mistrust of others and negative feelings associated with social relationships.

There was also a question related to “effortful coping,” defined as “actively trying to reduce stress despite repeated barriers to success.”

Participants were then divided into four groups, according to their level of hostility and effortful coping.

The study showed that people with the highest levels of both traits performed significantly worse on memory and thinking tests 25 years later than the people with the lowest levels of the traits.

For example, when asked to recall a list of 15 words, participants who had the highest levels of hostility as young adults remembered 0.16 fewer words in mid-life than those with the least hostility.

Those who had the most difficulty coping with stress when young remembered up to 0.3 fewer words than those who had less trouble coping.

Adjusting for factors such as depression, negative life events and discrimination did not alter the results.

Factoring in cardiovascular risk factors such as diabetes and high blood pressure made no difference to the results for coping ability, but it did reduce the relationship between hostility and thinking skills.

Launer, who is a member of the American Academy of Neurology, says:

We may not think of our personality traits as having any bearing on how well we think or remember things, but we found that the effect of having a hostile attitude and poor coping skills on thinking ability was similar to the effect of more than a decade of aging.”

Launer notes that the findings do not prove that hostile attitudes and poor coping skills cause memory and thinking impairment; they merely indicate an association.

However, she points out that if further studies can confirm a link, it could be worth searching for strategies to change these traits. This could not only promote positive social interactions and coping skills when people are young, but it might also reduce memory and thinking problems in middle age.

Medical News Today recently published findings showing that activity in a part of the brain called the lateral septum can cause some people to go into a fit of rage.