Skip to main content Accessibility help

Does neuroticism make you old? Prospective associations between neuroticism and leukocyte telomere length

  • S. L. van Ockenburg (a1), P. de Jonge (a1), P. van der Harst (a2), J. Ormel (a1) and J. G. M. Rosmalen (a1)...



Telomere attrition, causing accelerated aging, might be one of the mechanisms through which neuroticism leads to somatic disease and increased all-cause mortality. In the current study we investigated whether neuroticism is prospectively associated with shorter telomere length (TL), a biological marker of aging.


Participants were 3432 adults (mean age 52.9 years, range 32–79). Data were collected at baseline (T1) and at two follow-up visits after 4 years (T2) and 6 years (T3). Neuroticism was assessed using the 12-item neuroticism scale of the Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ-R) at T2 and T3. TL was measured by a monochrome multiplex quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay at T1, T2 and T3. A linear mixed model was used to assess whether neuroticism could predict TL prospectively after adjusting for age, sex, body mass index (BMI), frequency of sports, smoking status, presence of chronic diseases and level of education.


Neuroticism was a significant negative predictor of TL at follow-up (B = −0.004, p = 0.044) after adjusting for sex, age, baseline TL and various biological and lifestyle factors.


High neuroticism is significantly and prospectively associated with telomere attrition independent of lifestyle and other risk factors.


Corresponding author

* Address for correspondence: S. L. van Ockenburg, M.D., Interdisciplinary Center for Psychopathology and Emotion Regulation, University of Groningen, University Medical Center Groningen, PO Box 30.001, 9700 RB Groningen, The Netherlands. (Email:


Hide All
Aviv, A, Chen, W, Gardner, JP, Kimura, M, Brimacombe, M, Cao, X, Srinivasan, SR, Berenson, GS (2009). Leukocyte telomere dynamics: longitudinal findings among young adults in the Bogalusa Heart Study. American Journal of Epidemiology 169, 323329.
Blasco, MA (2007). Telomere length, stem cells and aging. Nature Chemical Biology 3, 640649.
Brydon, L, Lin, J, Butcher, L, Hamer, M, Erusalimsky, JD, Blackburn, EH, Steptoe, A (2011). Hostility and cellular aging in men from the Whitehall II cohort. Biological Psychiatry 71, 767773.
Cawthon, RM (2009). Telomere length measurement by a novel monochrome multiplex quantitative PCR method. Nucleic Acids Research 37, e21.
Cawthon, RM, Smith, KR, O'Brien, E, Sivatchenko, A, Kerber, RA (2003). Association between telomere length in blood and mortality in people aged 60 years or older. Lancet 361, 393395.
Chan, SW, Blackburn, EH (2002). New ways not to make ends meet: telomerase, DNA damage proteins and heterochromatin. Oncogene 21, 553563.
Chen, W, Kimura, M, Kim, S, Cao, X, Srinivasan, SR, Berenson, GS, Kark, JD, Aviv, A (2011). Longitudinal versus cross-sectional evaluations of leukocyte telomere length dynamics: age-dependent telomere shortening is the rule. Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 66, 312319.
Collado, M, Blasco, MA, Serrano, M (2007). Cellular senescence in cancer and aging. Cell 130, 223233.
Costa, PT Jr., McCrae, RR (1992 a). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and Individual Differences 13, 653665.
Costa, PT, McCrae, RR (1992 b). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) and the Five Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI): Professional Manual. Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.: Odessa, FL.
Damjanovic, AK, Yang, Y, Glaser, R, Kiecolt-Glaser, JK, Nguyen, H, Laskowski, B, Zou, Y, Beversdorf, DQ, Weng, NP (2007). Accelerated telomere erosion is associated with a declining immune function of caregivers of Alzheimer's disease patients. Journal of Immunology 179, 42494254.
Dickerson, SS, Kemeny, ME (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin 130, 355391.
Drury, SS, Theall, K, Gleason, MM, Smyke, AT, De Vivo, I, Wong, JY, Fox, NA, Zeanah, CH, Nelson, CA (2012). Telomere length and early severe social deprivation: linking early adversity and cellular aging. Molecular Psychiatry 17, 719727.
Du, M, Prescott, J, Kraft, P, Han, J, Giovannucci, E, Hankinson, SE, De Vivo, I (2012). Physical activity, sedentary behavior, and leukocyte telomere length in women. American Journal of Epidemiology 175, 414422.
Epel, ES, Blackburn, EH, Lin, J, Dhabhar, FS, Adler, NE, Morrow, JD, Cawthon, RM (2004). Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 101, 11731182.
Flores, I, Cayuela, ML, Blasco, MA (2005). Effects of telomerase and telomere length on epidermal stem cell behavior. Science 309, 12531256.
Fries, E, Hesse, J, Hellhammer, J, Hellhammer, DH (2005). A new view on hypocortisolism. Psychoneuroendocrinology 30, 10101016.
Graham, JW (2009). Missing data analysis: making it work in the real world. Annual Review of Psychology 60, 549576.
Harley, CB, Futcher, AB, Greider, CW (1990). Telomeres shorten during ageing of human fibroblasts. Nature 345, 458460.
Honig, LS, Schupf, N, Lee, JH, Tang, MX, Mayeux, R (2006). Shorter telomeres are associated with mortality in those with APOE epsilon4 and dementia. Annals of Neurology 60, 181187.
Huisman, M (2000). Imputation of missing item responses: some simple techniques. Quality and Quantity 34, 331351.
Kananen, L, Surakka, I, Pirkola, S, Suvisaari, J, Lonnqvist, J, Peltonen, L, Ripatti, S, Hovatta, I (2010). Childhood adversities are associated with shorter telomere length at adult age both in individuals with an anxiety disorder and controls. PloS One 5, e10826.
Kenward, MG, Molenberghs, G (1998). Likelihood based frequentist inference when data are missing at random. Statistical Science 13, 236247.
Kline, P (2000). A Psychometrics Primer. Free Association Books: London.
Lahey, BB (2009). Public health significance of neuroticism. American Psychologist 64, 241256.
Madsen, KS, Jernigan, TL, Iversen, P, Frokjaer, VG, Mortensen, EL, Knudsen, GM, Baare, WF (2012). Cortisol awakening response and negative emotionality linked to asymmetry in major limbic fibre bundle architecture. Psychiatry Research 201, 6372.
Mangold, D, Mintz, J, Javors, M, Marino, E (2012). Neuroticism, acculturation and the cortisol awakening response in Mexican American adults. Hormones and Behavior 61, 2330.
McIntosh, LJ, Hong, KE, Sapolsky, RM (1998). Glucocorticoids may alter antioxidant enzyme capacity in the brain: baseline studies. Brain Research 791, 209214.
McIntosh, LJ, Sapolsky, RM (1996). Glucocorticoids may enhance oxygen radical-mediated neurotoxicity. Neurotoxicology 17, 873882.
Mroczek, DK, Spiro, A, Turiano, N (2009). Do health behaviors explain the effect of neuroticism on mortality? Longitudinal findings from the VA Normative Aging Study. Journal of Research in Personality 43, 653659.
Nater, UM, Hoppmann, C, Klumb, PL (2010). Neuroticism and conscientiousness are associated with cortisol diurnal profiles in adults – role of positive and negative affect. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35, 15731577.
Nordfjall, K, Svenson, U, Norrback, KF, Adolfsson, R, Lenner, P, Roos, G (2009). The individual blood cell telomere attrition rate is telomere length dependent. PLoS Genetics 5, e1000375.
O'Donovan, A, Lin, J, Dhabhar, FS, Wolkowitz, O, Tillie, JM, Blackburn, E, Epel, E (2009). Pessimism correlates with leukocyte telomere shortness and elevated interleukin-6 in post-menopausal women. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 23, 446449.
Ormel, J, Rosmalen, J, Farmer, A (2004). Neuroticism: a non-informative marker of vulnerability to psychopathology. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 39, 906912.
Pineles, SL, Rasmusson, AM, Yehuda, R, Lasko, NB, Macklin, ML, Pitman, RK, Orr, SP (2012). Predicting emotional responses to potentially traumatic events from pre-exposure waking cortisol levels: a longitudinal study of police and firefighters. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping 26, 241253.
Pinheiro, J, Bates, D, DebRoy, S, Sarkar, D, and the R Development Core Team (2012). nlme: Linear and Nonlinear Mixed Effects Models. R package version 3.1105.
Pinto-Sietsma, SJ, Janssen, WM, Hillege, HL, Navis, G, de Zeeuw, D, de Jong, PE (2000). Urinary albumin excretion is associated with renal functional abnormalities in a nondiabetic population. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology 11, 18821888.
Poulton, RG, Andrews, G (1992). Personality as a cause of adverse life events. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 85, 3538.
R Core Team (2012). R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria (
Riese, H, Rijsdijk, FV, Rosmalen, JG, Snieder, H, Ormel, J (2009). Neuroticism and morning cortisol secretion: both heritable, but no shared genetic influences. Journal of Personality 77, 15611575.
Rudolph, KL, Millard, M, Bosenberg, MW, Depinho, RA (2001). Telomere dysfunction and evolution of intestinal carcinoma in mice and humans. Nature Genetics 28, 155159.
Sanderman, R, Eysenck, SBG, Arrindell, WA (1991). Cross-cultural comparisons of personality – the Netherlands and England. Psychological Reports 69, 10911096.
Shalev, I, Moffitt, TE, Sugden, K, Williams, B, Houts, RM, Danese, A, Mill, J, Arseneault, L, Caspi, A (2012). Exposure to violence during childhood is associated with telomere erosion from 5 to 10 years of age: a longitudinal study. Molecular Psychiatry 18, 576581.
Shipley, BA, Weiss, A, Der, G, Taylor, MD, Deary, IJ (2007). Neuroticism, extraversion, and mortality in the UK Health and Lifestyle Survey: a 21-year prospective cohort study. Psychosomatic Medicine 69, 923931.
Steptoe, A, Hamer, M, Butcher, L, Lin, J, Brydon, L, Kivimaki, M, Marmot, M, Blackburn, E, Erusalimsky, JD (2011). Educational attainment but not measures of current socioeconomic circumstances are associated with leukocyte telomere length in healthy older men and women. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 25, 12921298.
Svenson, U, Nordfjall, K, Baird, D, Roger, L, Osterman, P, Hellenius, ML, Roos, G (2011). Blood cell telomere length is a dynamic feature. PloS One 6, e21485.
Tabak, BA, McCullough, ME (2011). Perceived transgressor agreeableness decreases cortisol response and increases forgiveness following recent interpersonal transgressions. Biological Psychology 87, 386392.
Tyrka, AR, Price, LH, Kao, HT, Porton, B, Marsella, SA, Carpenter, LL (2010). Childhood maltreatment and telomere shortening: preliminary support for an effect of early stress on cellular aging. Biological Psychiatry 67, 531534.
Valdes, AM, Andrew, T, Gardner, JP, Kimura, M, Oelsner, E, Cherkas, LF, Aviv, A, Spector, TD (2005). Obesity, cigarette smoking, and telomere length in women. Lancet 366, 662664.
van Santen, A, Vreeburg, SA, Van der Does, AJ, Spinhoven, P, Zitman, FG, Penninx, BW (2011). Psychological traits and the cortisol awakening response: results from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety. Psychoneuroendocrinology 36, 240248.
Wikgren, M, Maripuu, M, Karlsson, T, Nordfjall, K, Bergdahl, J, Hultdin, J, Del-Favero, J, Roos, G, Nilsson, LG, Adolfsson, R, Norrback, KF (2012). Short telomeres in depression and the general population are associated with a hypocortisolemic state. Biological Psychiatry 71, 294300.
Willeit, P, Willeit, J, Mayr, A, Weger, S, Oberhollenzer, F, Brandstatter, A, Kronenberg, F, Kiechl, S (2010). Telomere length and risk of incident cancer and cancer mortality. Journal of the American Medical Association 304, 6975.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed