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Perfectionism Linked to Early Death

• May 20, 2009 • 7:15 PM

Perfectionism, as a way of life, tends to be self-defeating. New research suggests it may also be deadly.

That’s the conclusion of a Canadian study of senior citizens just published in the Journal of Health Psychology. Researchers conducted psychological tests on 450 elderly residents of southern Alberta, and then kept tabs on them for 6½ years. During that period, just over 30 percent of the subjects, who ranged in age from 65 to 87, died.

Perfectionists — that is, those who expressed “a strong motivation to be perfect” and revealed a tendency toward “all or nothing thinking” — were approximately 51 percent more likely to have died during the life of the study than those with more reasonable self-expectations. Those who were rated high on neuroticism — for instance, those who reported often feeling tense — did even worse: Their risk of death nearly doubled compared with those with a more relaxed disposition.

In contrast, “risk of death was significantly lower for high scorers in conscientiousness, extraversion and optimism,” reports lead author Prem S. Fry, a research psychologist at British Columbia’s Trinity Western University. She notes that previous research has found that “perfectionism exerts a great deal of stress on health,” while optimism “is viewed as a stress-alleviating factor.”

“In short, our findings confirmed that conscientiousness and extraversion are health-related dimensions that are enabling in their effects, and perfectionism and neuroticism are disabling,” she concludes. “It is noteworthy that these associations endure well into late life.”

The findings have interesting implications for seniors’ health care providers and caregivers. They suggest physicians and family members are well-advised to be vigilant in noticing perfectionist tendencies, and understanding of the physical and psychological toll they can take.

The desire to pursue a favorite task or hobby at the same high level one achieved in previous years is very understandable, and in many ways commendable. But at the same time, it’s important to be cognizant of the stress such an effort can produce and the negative health effects that can result.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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