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Calling All Cynics: Your Mistrust Is Bad for Your Brain

cynical personIf you’re a cynic, you’ll probably disregard this, but researchers say that cynical mistrust will triple your risk of developing dementia.

Scoff all you want, but researchers in Finland who tested 1,449 older adults (average age: 71) found that highly cynical people were three times more likely to develop dementia than those with a more trusting, optimistic personality, according to a study published today in the journal Neurology.

In other words, “your personality may affect your brain health,” explained lead author Anna-Maija Tolppanen, of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, in an email.

Previous research shows that personality traits can change people’s lifestyles. Cynics may be more likely than optimists to eat an unhealthy diet, eschew friendships and spend more time on couches and less on treadmills. (Journalists: Take note.)

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But there may be more to it than that. Tolppanen’s study made adjustments for smoking and general health, so she said cynicism may cause chemical or structural changes in the brain. Cynical people may have higher levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system and higher stress levels, she added.

It also could be because highly cynical people border on being paranoid. To be judged highly cynical in this study, people had to agree wholeheartedly with statements such as “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” “It is safer to trust nobody” and “I commonly wonder what hidden reasons another person may have for doing something nice to me.” Paranoia is a common symptom of dementia.

Thomas Wisniewski, M.D., director of the Center for Cognitive Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that the study results make sense, because cynicism is a risk factor for poor heart health, which is strongly linked to poor brain health. He also said that even though Americans have the reputation for being eternally optimistic, he’d be surprised if a similar study in the United States didn’t produce the same results.

But what if cynical people improve their attitude – can they also improve their brain health?

“I think a certain degree of flexibility in people’s outlook is possible,” Wisniewski said. “Although it’s easier said than done.”

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Social interaction, for example, is a key to maintaining cognitive health, and cynics don’t tend to socialize much. That’s something people can work to change.

“Being socially active is good for your brain, so if the decrease in cynicism would lead to increased social interactions, this would be good for brain health,” Tolppanen said.

Photo: iStock/Blend Images

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