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Do you have an 'overweight' personality?

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July 25, 2011

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Is your body weight a sign of your personality? The politically incorrect answer that comes from a new study is yes. Public health experts have been blaming societal structure - not willpower - for our nation’s growing waistline that has left two-thirds of Americans overweight: Junk food is too cheap; walking paths too inaccessible; driving too easy. But researchers from the National Institute on Aging have now found that personality plays a hefty role, too, in terms of weight changes over the decades.

They performed regular body-mass index measurements and personality questionnaires on nearly 1,800 participants who volunteered to take part in the ongoing Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging and found that two traits - impulsivity and conscientiousness - played the strongest role in determining mid-life weight gain. Those who scored the highest for impulsive, disorganized behaviors gained 22 pounds more, on average, over two decades compared to those who scored the lowest for these behaviors, according to a July study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

That’s not a huge surprise given that those who act on impulse will probably down more doughnuts over the course of a lifetime, and be more likely to skip the gym, than those who exert self discipline. “Those who are more conscientious tend to eat and exercise on a more regular schedule and are less likely to binge eat or drink - all things that contribute to a more stable weight,’’ said study author Angelina Sutin, a psychologist at the National Institute on Aging.

Interestingly, though, the researchers also found that highly competitive, antagonistic personalities also tended to gain more weight over time. Sutin speculated that this might be due to these individuals exerting a stronger stress response in any given situation and that the high stress responses leads to overeating.

Even yo-yo dieters may have specific personality traits: Those who scored high on the neuroticism scale - always worried, say, about what others think of them - had a greater likelihood of experiencing repeated cycles of weight gain and loss, which Sutin said she couldn’t explain.

What the study didn’t find was a shift in personality traits that paralleled large weight changes. “We were pretty surprised by that,’’ said Sutin. After all, obesity has been linked to depression and social ostracism.

If our personalities are fixed, does this mean we’re doomed to be fat if we’re more impulsive than conscientious?

“While personality tends to be resistant to change,’’ said Sutin, “we can change how we express behaviors that are related to weight gain.’’ Impulsive people can remind themselves to be more organized. And while Sutin pointed out that the study underscores individual differences among us when it comes to mid-life weight gain, it doesn’t “in any way exonerate society’’ for failing to adequately address the obesity epidemic.

DEBORAH KOTZ

lizzo wrote: This piece is interesting in that certain “categories’’ of obese people (say, the yo-yo dieters) fall into certain distinct and separate personality categories, rather than there being a claim of one certain type of personality being most prevalent among the obese.

purplecow89 wrote: Highly competitive people are often working crazy hours and not getting enough sleep - so they eat whatever’s handy, at odd hours, and make up for being tired with eating more. If you’re convinced you always have one more thing to do for work, you’re not going to put away the computer and go for a walk, or spend longer fixing dinner.

FinnH wrote: What makes this article interesting is the possibility of developing different approaches for different types of people struggling with their weight.

debkotz responds: I think there are many complex reasons that people become overweight and many solutions - not a one-size-fits-all-approach.

Secondhand smoke and teen hearing loss

As if parents need another reason to double their efforts to quit smoking, now researchers have linked hearing loss in teenagers to secondhand smoke exposure. Teens who live in a household with smokers have an 83 percent greater likelihood of developing hearing loss in the lowest and highest frequencies than teens in homes with no smokers, according to a study published last week in the Archives of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery.

Previous research has established that secondhand smoke increases the risk of medical problems in kids, including ear infections in infants, respiratory problems, and sudden infant death syndrome.

The study’s authors, from New York University Lagone Medical Center, noted that teens are not routinely screened for hearing loss but that the finding may now warrant screening for those who are exposed to secondhand smoke.

“Health care providers should add SHS exposure to the list of risk factors for hearing loss and refer these young adults for complete audiologic evaluation to identify early hearing loss,’’ the researchers wrote, given that 82 percent of the study participants with hearing loss didn’t recognize that they were having difficulty hearing. D.K.

dawn2718 wrote: Could be a correlating factor here - for example, smoking parents are more likely to listen to/expose their kids to loud music, which ruins their hearing.

scoogy wrote: My father smoked five packs a day, my mother, three. My hearing has always been very good.

Alzheimer's awareness

If you were having trouble finding your way home on a familiar route, would you want to get evaluated for Alzheimer’s? Nearly 90 percent of Americans say yes, according to a study presented last week at an Alzheimer’s research meeting in Paris.

“We were taken aback by the underlying willingness of people to get tested for Alzheimer’s if they had memory loss or confusion,’’ said study author Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We thought that people would be more resistant because of concerns about employment discrimination,’’ and the fact that there’s no treatment or cure.

But many people don’t realize that. Sixty-one percent of Americans said they thought Alzheimers was a fatal disease; that compares to 44 percent of French and 33 percent of Germans. For the record, it is.

And nearly half of Americans said they thought there was an effective treatment for the disease. That misinformation could explain why so many said they were also willing to have a screening test for Alzheimer’s if one became available in the future. D.K.

40something wrote: I would take the test. I would want to know. I have cared for Alzheimer’s patients at a nursing home in my distant past. I would not put my family through this.

avgjoethinking wrote : Sure why not? That way the insurance company can deny my claims now instead of when I am older.

bidemytime wrote: I would want to know, because denial of disease doesn’t make it go away. I’d want my loved ones to know.

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