If you’re a personality test junkie, you might be familiar with the idea of “Type A”/”Type B” personalities. Aka results from a non-medical test invented in the 1950s that supposedly determined whether you’re ambitious and competitive ("Type A") or easygoing and chill ("Type B").
But while personality tests (see: The Enneagram and Myers-Briggs) are fun to take, it’s important to remember that “Type A,” “Type B” are really just groupings of personality traits. Not an actual psychological diagnosis. And researchers have found that you can’t really “be” a Type A or Type B at all. Yet the myths that “Type A” personalities are legit and can even be associated with certain health conditions persist. Some, for example, think that people who fall into the “Type A” category are at a higher risk of heart disease. That’s been disproven. However, some characteristics typically associated with being “Type A” (stress and hostility) might be predictors for heart disease.
So we caught up with cardiologist Dr. Joyce Oen-Hsiao, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at Yale School of Medicine, to break down why Type A personalities were linked to heart disease in the first place — and why it no longer is today.
Remind me. What traits are associated with “Type A” and “Type B'' personalities?
“Type A” personalities refer to people who have tendencies to be more stressed, competitive, impatient, and at times aggressive. Think: That friend who makes an hour-by-hour itinerary for your group vacay. The “Type B” personality describes someone who is the opposite, tending to be more relaxed, less competitive, and more easygoing. Read: That friend who tends to procrastinate but is flexible to change. There are also “Type C” (the perfectionist) and “Type D” (distressed) personalities, because, surprise, we’re all different.
So how can a “Type A” personality affect my health?
Stress, which is associated with “Type A” personalities (think: competitiveness, urgency, and impatience) can negatively affect your health. Think: Sleep issues, fatigue, and headaches. Stress can cause inflammation in your body, even in the arteries, which can increase your blood pressure — which increases your risk of heart disease.
But other lifestyle choices like diet and exercise and unhealthy habits (see: smoking) also play a big part in your health. If you consider yourself to be a highly stressed person, Dr. Oen-Hsiao suggests incorporating relaxation techniques like meditation and exercise into your routine. And most importantly, talk to your doctor about your health risks and a mental health professional about managing stress.
And what’s the connection between “Type A” personality and heart disease?
First, a quick definition: Heart disease (which is the number one killer of women) is an umbrella term for any illness that affects the heart. Coronary heart disease (where the heart’s blood supply is blocked by a buildup of plaque or fatty substances) is the most common type of heart disease and is a frequent cause of heart attacks.
Basically, in the 1950s, Dr. Friedman and Dr. Rosenman thought there might be a correlation between “Type A” personalities and heart disease. Because of “Type A’s” supposed ambitious, competitive natures. Which they theorized made them more vulnerable to stress than “Type B” personalities.
But in the 1990s, research found that “it's actually the stress that's associated with the coronary artery disease, not necessarily the 'Type A' personality,” Dr. Oen-Hsiao says. “Just because you'd like to be organized and have things done on time, doesn't mean that you have [a higher risk of] coronary disease.” So, when it comes to heart disease risks, your personality type doesn’t come into play. But your stress levels might.
In fact, in the ‘90s, it was revealed that the original studies that linked “Type As” to a higher risk of coronary disease were funded by tobacco companies. To try to “prove” that the actual health risks related to smoking (yup, heart disease) were caused by “Type A” personality types, and not by the act of smoking itself. Insert side-eye emoji.
Being driven, ambitious, working hard — that's all good. And that doesn't necessarily cause the increase in coronary artery disease,” Dr. Oen-Hsiao says. “But it's where it’s so driven and so competitive to a point that you're stressed all the time” that there might be cause for concern.
Are any other personality “types” correlated to heart disease?
Speaking of being stressed. Also in the 1990s, a “Type D” personality, another grouping of personality traits, was coined. “D” meaning “distressed.” Typical traits for this personality type include feelings of worry, pessimism, negative self-talk, fear of rejection, and hopelessness, to name a few. So, studies have investigated the possible link between “Type D” personality traits and heart disease. And according to Dr. Oen-Hsiao, there is a correlation between the characteristics associated with “Type D” personalities and heart disease, because of this group’s tendencies toward “social inhibition” (restraining self expression out of fear that others may disapprove) and “negative affectivity” (negative emotions) which studies have shown could increase the risk of heart disease.
We've known since the '90s that “Type A” personalities don’t determine your health as a whole. But stress itself, which has been associated with “Type A” personalities, can increase your risk of heart disease. Learning to manage your stress (and getting a doctor involved) can help.
Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.