We take our personality everywhere we go — from work to school, and even our relationships — since it is reflected in everything we do. It comes as no surprise, then, the way we manage our health and illness is also a reflection of our personality, even though many of us, especially cynics, don’t tend to think the two go hand-in-hand. Believe it or not, however, people with higher levels of cynical distrust are more susceptible to developing dementia and more likely to die sooner, according to a recent study published in the journal Neurology.
“[P]eople’s view on life and personality may have an impact on their health,” said Anna-Maija Tolppanen, study author of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, in the press 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." This recent study provides mounting evidence that our behavior and our emotions can directly affect our health. Although studies have examined the effects of cynical distrust on heart problems, no study had delved into its effects on dementia, until now.
To investigate the relationship between late-life cynical distrust and incident dementia mortality, Tolppanen and her colleagues in Finland used data from the Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging and Dementia Study. In the study, cynical distrust is defined as the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns. A total of 1,449 people with an average age of 71 were given tests for dementia and a questionnaire to measure their level of cynicism.
The participants were asked how much they agree with statements such as: "I think most people would lie to get ahead," "It is safer to trust nobody," and "Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it," according to Pacific Standard. Based on their scores, participants were grouped in low, moderate, and high levels of cynical distrust.
The researchers used the Cook-Medley Scale to evaluate the cognitive status with a three-step protocol, including screening, clinical phase, and differential diagnostic phase. Dementia was diagnosed according to DSM-IV criteria. A total of 622 people completed two tests for dementia, with the last one having an average follow-up of eight years after the study started. During this time, 46 people were diagnosed with dementia.
The findings revealed people with high levels of cynical distrust were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism. This remained true even after the researchers accounted for other factors that could affect dementia risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Of the 164 people with high levels of cynicism, 14 people developed dementia, compared to only nine of the 212 people with low levels of cynicism.
The participants with higher levels of cynical distrust were found to be older, and a greater body mass index (BMI), systolic blood pressure, and plasma fasting glucose than those with lower cynical distrust. Moreover, these cynics had a shorter education history, and their self-reported health status was poorer than those with lower cynical distrust scores. However, those with high or middle levels of cynical distrust were more likely to be men or smokers, and have higher scores on the Beck Depression Inventory.
“Confirming the association between cynical distrust and incident dementia necessitates replication studies in larger populations with longer follow-up times,” the study authors wrote.
Cynical hostility may not only trigger the onset of dementia but also immune-related diseases. This personality trait has been known to increase proinflammatory activity promoting higher Th1 and Th2 cytokine production. The cytokines are responsible for mediating and regulating immunity, inflammation, and hematopoiesis. In a 2010 study, greater hostility in healthy men and women, was related to the greater production of two to three TH1 cytokines — TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma. However, hostility was not associated with any measure of Th2 cytokine production. The effect of stimulated cytokine activity may have implications in the development of immune-related diseases.
Chief Happiness Officer Scott Crabtree at Happy Brain Science told Medical Daily the science is clear when it comes to cynicism and our health. “Cynicism lowers optimism and lowers mood, dropping well-being overall,” he said. However, not all cynics are doomed. Crabtree notes “active optimism” can help us combat the effects of cynicism. Simply writing down our best possible future, for three years from now for example “boosts happiness which boosts immune system and overall health.”
Perhaps we can all stop being cynical, for our health’s sake, or not.
Kivipelti M, Laatikainen T, Ngandu T et al. Late-life cynical distrust, risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort. Neurology. 2014.
Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Janicki-Deverts D. et al. Cynical hostility and stimulated Th1 and Th2 cytokine production. Brain Behav Immun. 2010.