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Cynical? Why It Might Be Bad For Your Brain

May 31, 2014
Amanda L. Chan

If you always think the worst of people, you might be putting your own brain health at risk, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland found an association between cynical distrust—which researchers described in the study as “the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns”—and an increased risk of developing dementia.

The Neurology study included 1,449 people with an average age of 71. Researchers administered tests for dementia, and also had the participants answer questionnaires to gauge their cynicism levels. The questionnaire required participants to mark their level of agreement with statements such as, “It is safer to trust nobody” and “I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

Ultimately, information on the association between dementia and cynicism was available for 622 people, while information on the association between mortality and cynicism was available for 1,146 people. The people whose dementia-cynicism link was examined were followed for an average of 8.4 years, while the people whose mortality-cynicism link was examined were followed for an average of 10.4 years.

While researchers did not find an association between dementia and cynical distrust after adjusting for purely age and sex, they did find after also adjusting for cardiovascular risk factors that the most cynical people in the study had a 2.54 times higher risk of developing dementia, compared with the least cynical people. The association only grew stronger after also taking into account factors such as lifestyle, health status, and socioeconomic factors.

Mortality and cynicism was a different story—while there was an association between mortality and cynicism after only taking into account sex and age (with the most cynical having a 40 percent higher risk of dying over the time period than the least cynical), the association went away after also taking into account socioeconomic factors, health, smoking, and alcoholic consumption.

Researchers did note that because of “the long preclinical period preceding manifest dementia, it may be that some of the persons already had prodromal disease at the time of assessment of cynical distrust,” they wrote in the study. “The results may therefore also reflect the role of impending dementia on one’s attitude. Thus, although we excluded those persons who had dementia at the time of cynical distrust assessment, we cannot entirely rule out reverse causality.”

Previously, cynicism has been linked with other health problems, particularly regarding the heart. A 2009 study, for instance, showed that women with high cynicism and hostility had a higher risk of dying over eight years than women with low cynicism and hostility levels. And a 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that cynical distrust is associated with inflammation, which could also be bad for the heart.

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