Dan Mroczek, a developmental psychologist working with longitudinal data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, has found that men who became less neurotic with age had a lower risk of mortality.
So what does it mean to be neurotic?
In the realm of abnormal psychology there are two broad classes of mental illness: psychoticism and neuroticism. All types of mental illness can more or less be fit into one category or the other. Conditions like schizophrenia, dissociative fugue, and Alzheimer's are psychotic disorders because each involves a break with reality, the hallmark of psychoticism. Neuroticism on the other hand encompasses mood disorders of which depression and OCD are great examples.
Just as with physical health, there is no a black and white distinction between health and illness in psychology. Mroczek's research suggest people should be concerned about the long-term side effects of being even slightly neurotic.
According to his study, small increases in neuroticism have harmful effects. "Participants with as little as a one-unit increase in neuroticism over the course of the study were shown to have a 40 percent higher chance of death than a participant who showed no change" according to the press release. The study will be published next month.
Just how and why being a worrywort, touchy, or moody affects health is not known.
Mroczek suspects that it might have something to do with an inability to effectively deal with stress.
Stress can corrode the immune system that guards our health through a chemical called cortisol. Stress causes our bodies to release cortisol. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In small amounts, cortisol actually helps our immune system function better. In larger amounts it shuts down the immune system and can seriously damage many organs, including the brain.
Cortisol can be kept down by avoiding situations that cause stress or by coping more effectively with stress. Unfortunately, many people get wrapped up in taking the edge off of the daily assaults of life by resorting to bad habits like smoking, drinking, and over-eating. Those ways of coping decrease subjective stress but they don't actually do anything to lower cortisol levels. In fact, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol harms the immune system because those chemicals kill vital white blood cells.
Massage is one highly effective way to cope with stress. It has measurable, positive effects on the immune system. So does exercise.
Being neurotic can kill you, but it does not have to. The best thing people can do to improve health is to stop smoking, drink less, get exercise and trade back rubs with a loved one.