The bitter truth: Cynics have triple the risk of dementia

06/04/2014 11:17 AM

06/07/2014 10:07 AM

As if they didn’t have enough to be bummed out about, cynics are three times more likely to develop dementia as non-cynics, a new Finnish study reports.

As a card-carrying optimist, I have two reactions to the finding: Relief at not being in the high-risk group, and surprise that no one hit on the connection between cynicism and dementia before.

I’ve always thought of cynicism as its own type of dementia, a self-administered toxic drip that skews perception and stunts learning.

The Finnish researchers identified cynics as people who agreed with statements such as “I think most people would lie to get ahead” and “It is safer to trust nobody.”

Most of the cynics I know are convinced their trust-nobody attitude protects them from harm. How disheartening to learn that it instead dramatically ups their likelihood of developing cognitive impairment.

A raft of studies have previously documented the benefits of optimism on physical health:

A 2009 University of Pittsburgh study found that postmenopausal women who were optimistic were less likely to develop heart disease and less likely to die in the next eight years compared to women who were pessimistic.

A Dutch study in 2004 found the same correlation between pessimism and heart disease and death in elderly people of both sexes.

A 35-year study of Harvard graduates found that a pessimistic outlook at age 25 is a predictor of poor health after 45.

Now that this Finnish study shows optimism is better for mental health as well, I think those of us in the always-look-on-the-bright-side brigade can declare complete and total victory over the glass-half-empty contingent.

At the very least we can drive a stake through the notion that we are the more deluded of the two groups.

Stephen Colbert put cynicism in its place as only he can do, in a 2006 commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it,” Colbert said. “Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge.”

So if you already own rose-colored glasses, dust them off and wear them with pride. If you’ve never worn them, you might try a pair. Your brain will thank you.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and the Star’s ChowTown blog.

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