Cynics are three times more likely to develop dementia than their more trusting counterparts, according to a paper published today in Neurology.
This new report adds to the medical literature linking cynicism to other health issues, and suggests that misanthropes’ distrustful natures could cause them serious harm in the long run. The results held true even after the researchers controlled for age, sex, socioeconomic status, and unhealthy lifestyles (like smoking). “These findings indicate that personality can affect brain health,” said the study’s lead researcher, Anna-Maija Tolppanen of the University of Finland, in an email.
The study started with 1,449 seniors completing a test psychologists often used to measure levels of cynicism, which asks participants to rate how strongly they agreed with statements like, “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” or “It is safer to trust nobody.” From that pool, 622 were tested for dementia over a period of eight years, and those who had scored highly on the cynicism test were found to be significantly more likely to develop it.
To be clear, researchers found a correlation between cynicism and brain health; it’s too soon to know whether cynicism actually causes dementia. But Tolppanen says this is the first study to link the two, and it builds on existing evidence suggesting that a misanthropic nature can be harmful to your health. A 2009 study in women linked cynicism with higher rates of heart disease and cancer, for example. Another worrisome finding, published last year, showed that cynical soldiers are less likely to seek help for mental health issues.
Cynicism can be rather effective as a self-defense reflex: If you never trust anyone, you’ll never be fooled by anyone. (Cynics, for example, probably didn’t fall for CNN’s bogus story claiming that an asteroid is on track to annihilate the Earth by 2041.) And it’s next to impossible to change your basic personality type, acknowledged Tolppanen. So what’s a cynic to do? Tolppanen suggests targeting other health behaviors that are risk factors for dementia — simple things like quitting smoking, exercising and eating better, and making sure to see friends regularly. Providing, that is, that any cynic reading is even buying the misanthropy-dementia link in the first place.