Aging Baby Boomers: What would you do to ward off dementia? Exercise more? Play games designed to beef up brain circuits? Well, here’s another, less-obvious recommendation: Drop your cynicism.
A first-of-its kind study reports seniors expressing high levels of cynical distrust are at a higher risk of developing dementia. This finding, discovered in a population of elderly Finns, was not entirely explained by depressive symptoms, and remained robust after various risk factors were taken into account.
The results suggest it may be possible “to improve life quality by attempting to change people’s attitudes to a more positive direction,” writes a research team led by Anna-Maija Tolppanen of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio. Its research is published in the journal Neurology.
"After accounting for cardiovascular risk factors, people with the highest level of cynical distrust had 2.54 times greater risk of incident dementia, compared with the people with low cynical distrust."
The study used data on 622 elderly people living in Eastern Finland. They were examined for signs of dementia in 1998, when they were between the ages of 65 and 80, and again in a follow-up exam between 2005 and 2008.
During the initial exam, participants responded to a series of eight statements designed to measure their level of cynical distrust. They expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such assertions as “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” “Most people make friends because friends are likely to be useful to them,” and “It is safer to trust nobody.”
Forty-six people were diagnosed with dementia during the second test after getting a clean bill of mental health on the first one. “After accounting for cardiovascular risk factors,” the researchers write, “people with the highest level of cynical distrust had 2.54 times greater risk of incident dementia, compared with the people with low cynical distrust.”
Tolppanen and her colleagues found the most cynical seniors also had a higher risk of dying during that period. “This was entirely explained by behavioral factors (including smoking and alcohol consumption), self-reported health, and especially socioeconomic background,” they write.
In contrast, the higher rate of dementia was found when such variables were taken out of the equation. This suggests the mental disorder was not the result of bad health or heavy drinking.
The good news is the researchers found the moderately cynical were at no higher risk of dementia than the optimistic and trusting. So it’s OK to be at least a bit wary about the motivations of one’s fellow man.
But if these results hold up in other, larger studies, they point to a new way of combating an end-of-life disease that most everyone fears.
As Woody Allen learned in Manhattan: You have to have a little faith in people.