Curious? Then you'll live longer
If you're naturally curious, and like finding out about things or trying out new things, then you have a personality structure which is likely to help you reach a ripe old age. If, on top of that, you also produce low amounts of cortisol, you may be in even more luck. A study that biologists made of lab rats at Pennsylvania State University points in this direction.
The stress hormone cortisol is not a healthy hormone. It's true that it puts your body into action stations mode and ready to fight, which can be handy when there's an acute crisis. But a chronically raised cortisol level causes more fat deposition, insulin resistance, a lazy immune system and muscle breakdown. Not very healthy. A raised cortisol level reduces life expectancy.
A raised cortisol level is also found in people who are afraid of new things. It's called neophobia. Neophobe people are scared of everything that is new and strange. People who are suspicious of a strange meal that is put in front of them, or of people with a different appearance from themselves.
How are these two things related? Does neophobia also shorten life expectancy? Or do people with neophobia live less long because they also happen to produce more cortisol? The researchers hoped to at least start to answer these questions with their animal study.
The researchers let a group of rats age and then determined their cortisol levels and the extent to which they were neophobic. The neophobia they measured by suddenly giving the rats access to a new cage. If the rats went and checked out the new cage they were not neophobic [not inhibited]. If they didn't dare go in the new cage they were neophobic [inhibited]. Some animals were neophobic on one occasion and not on the next [mixed].
Animals with high cortisol levels lived less long than animals with low cortisol levels. See the graph below.
Neophobia and a high cortisol level often go hand in hand. But not always. Because of this the researchers were able to separate out the two characteristics. This enabled them to draw the graph below. This shows that the animals that were both curious and produced little cortisol lived longest of all the lab rats.
But if you are afraid of new things and produce high amounts of cortisol... Well then...
Physiol Behav. 2009 Aug 4;98(1-2):205-14.
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