Mistrust is Bad for the Brain


2016-0616 Sporatic CynicsmThe inspiration for this post was an article written by Elizabeth Agnvall for AARP titled, “Calling All Cynics: Mistrust Is Bad for Your Brains.” Some survivors, many of whom are not AARP members, believe AARP has nothing to offer them. The article may have been written for a different audience, but it is definitely applicable to younger and older readers whether or not they currently have any type of brain injury or memory loss.

Article by Elizabeth Agnvall | AARP Blog Author

If you’re a cynic, you’ll probably disregard this, but researchers say that cynical mistrust will triple your risk of developing dementia.

Scoff all you want, but researchers in Finland who tested 1,449 older adults (average age: 71) found that highly cynical people were three times more likely to develop dementia than those with a more trusting, optimistic personality, according to a study published in the journal Neurology.

In other words, “your personality may affect your brain health,” explained lead author Anna-Maija Tolppanen, of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, in an email.

Previous research shows that personality traits can change people’s lifestyles. Cynics may be more likely than optimists to eat an unhealthy diet, eschew friendships and spend more time on couches and less on treadmills. (Journalists: Take note.)

But there may be more to it than that. Tolppanen’s study made adjustments for smoking and general health, so she said cynicism may cause chemical or structural changes in the brain. Cynical people may have higher levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system and higher stress levels, she added.

It also could be because highly cynical people border on being paranoid. To be judged highly cynical in this study, people had to agree wholeheartedly with statements such as “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” “It is safer to trust nobody” and “I commonly wonder what hidden reasons another person may have for doing something nice to me.” Paranoia is a common symptom of dementia.

Thomas Wisniewski, M.D., director of the Center for Cognitive Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that the study results make sense, because cynicism is a risk factor for poor heart health, which is strongly linked to poor brain health. He also said that even though Americans have the reputation for being eternally optimistic, he’d be surprised if a similar study in the United States didn’t produce the same results.

But what if cynical people improve their attitude — can they also improve their brain health?

“I think a certain degree of flexibility in people’s outlook is possible,” Wisniewski said. “Although it’s easier said than done.”

Social interaction, for example, is a key to maintaining cognitive health, and cynics don’t tend to socialize much. That’s something people can work to change.

“Being socially active is good for your brain, so if the decrease in cynicism would lead to increased social interactions, this would be good for brain health,” Tolppanen said.


Click here to read another Beyond Injury post about a published study.

Thanks to Neurology for publishing the study; the designers, researchers, and participants of the study; Elizabeth Agnvall for writing the article; AARP for publishing the article; Google for helping me find the article and picture; and all other people who, directly or indirectly, made it possible for me to include the picture and text I used in this post.

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