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Research Highlights

High conscientiousness, low neuroticism predict better health in older couples

A high degree of conscientiousness—the tendency to follow societal norms, plan, and be task and goal directed—has been shown to predict better physical health and functioning. In a recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, older adults’ conscientiousness also seemed to influence the health status of their spouses, an effect called “compensatory conscientiousness.”

Another personality trait, neuroticism, is associated with poorer health and physical limitations, the researchers found. Unlike conscientiousness, neuroticism—an enduring tendency to experience negative emotional states, often accompanied by anxiety or stress—did not predict a spouse’s or partner’s health status.

However, people who scored high in both neuroticism and conscientiousness were healthier than others, perhaps because the heightened sense of concern worked synergistically to result in a higher degree of awareness of a spouse’s health. The wives of men with this combination of personality traits reported better health than other women. A husband who is anxious about his wife’s health could be driven to activities that improve her health, the authors explain. However, this compensatory effect did not appear for husbands of women with high neuroticism and conscientiousness.

Looking at 2,006 self-reports from 2,203 couples who participated in the NIA-funded Health and Retirement Study of people ages 50 and older, the researchers found that older adults’ conscientiousness predicted their spouses’ health outcomes above and beyond the spouses’ own personality. “These results suggest that a conscientious partner is beneficial to an individual’s health no matter how conscientious that individual is,” they conclude. “Partners high in conscientiousness might be more reliable and consistent providers of support and might be a source of more constructive advice and feedback about health-related issues.”


Roberts, B.W., et al. Compensatory conscientiousness and health in older couples. Psychol Sci. 2009. 20(5):553–9.

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