Background It is well established that psychological distress (depression and anxiety) is related to an increased risk of mortality. The personality trait of neuroticism, reflecting a relatively stable tendency towards negative emotions, has also been associated with elevated rates of death in some studies. Accordingly, we tested the possibility that it is the neuroticism trait itself, rather than the distress state, that is generating an increased risk of mortality.
Methods We used data from the UK Biobank study, a UK-wide prospective cohort study (2006–2010) in which distress was ascertained using the Patient Health Questionnaire and neuroticism using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire-Revised Short Form.
Results A mean of 6.2 years of follow-up of 308 721 study members gave rise to 4334 deaths. Higher neuroticism was weakly associated with total mortality (age-adjusted and sex-adjusted HR per SD increase; 95% CI 1.05; 1.02 to 1.09), and moderately strongly correlated with distress symptoms (r=0.55, p<0.0001). Distress symptoms were positively related to risk of total mortality (age-adjusted and sex-adjusted HR per SD increase in distress; 95% CI 1.23; 1.20 to 1.26). This gradient was, in fact, slightly strengthened after adding neuroticism to the multivariable model (1.30; 1.26 to 1.34) but markedly attenuated after taking into account other covariates which included health behaviours and somatic disease (1.16; 1.12 to 1.20). Similar results were apparent when cardiovascular disease, cancer and external cause of death were the end points of interest.
Conclusions While there was good a priori reasons to anticipate the neuroticism would at least partially explain the relation between distress symptoms and cause-specific mortality, we found no such evidence in the present study.
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