The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suspend your disbelief: All that cynicism may be bad for your health

(Britta Pedersen/AP)

People who are very cynical late in their lives may be more likely to develop dementia, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland asked a group of 1,449 people with an average age of 71 to agree or disagree with statements such as "I think most people would lie to get ahead" and "it's safer to trust nobody" and "most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it." Based on responses to the questionnaire, survey participants were rated at either low, moderate or high levels of cynical distrust.

According to the study, which was published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, people who tested high for levels of cynical distrust were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism, once researchers controlled for other factors that influence dementia risk, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.

"There have been previous studies that showed that people who were cynical were more likely to die earlier and have other poor health outcomes, but no one that we could tell ever looked at dementia," Anna-Maija Tolppanen, one of the study's authors, said in an interview with CNN. "We have seen some studies that show people who are more open and optimistic have a lower risk for dementia so we thought this was a good question to ask."

Cynics may view their disposition as a reflection of cold, hard realism rather than an unhealthy attitude, but there's a growing body of evidence that your attitude can be linked to your health.

A 2010 study found that hostility and cynicism were associated with inflammation, regardless of socioeconomic status, age, race, sex, body mass index and a host of other factors. And 2009 study of black and white women found that cynicism and optimism influenced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

"I can tell you from my clinical perspective from treating patients, I am absolutely certain that psychological attitudes can lead people down a road to poor health, because I see it every day when I talk to patients," Hillary Tindle, the lead researcher of the 2009 study on women's heart disease risk, told CNN.

The Finland study is the first to look at the issue of dementia separately and the results in many ways point to more questions than answers.

More research needs to be done to determine if there is a causal relationship between dementia and cynicism and whether cynicism has any effect on mortality.

And the eventual goal of all of this work will be to investigate whether treating a person's attitude problem can influence the treatment of dementia, according to Tolppanen.

"These results add to the evidence that people's view on life and personality may have an impact on their health," Tolppanen said in a news release. "Understanding how a personality trait like cynicism affects risk for dementia might provide us with important insights on how to reduce risks for dementia."