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Curmudgeons, cranks and misanthropes beware: Dementia is more likely

Alzheimer's DiseasePhilosophy
Question people's motive for being nice? There may be a cost
In a study of elderly Finns, the most cynical were almost three times likelier to develop dementia
Cynicism: Could changing your bad attitude ward off dementia?

OK, it probably is a plot. But a new study finds that if you're distrustful and cynical of other peoples' motives in your elder years, you're more likely to develop dementia. And that's just the latest bad news for grumpy old men and women: Past research has found that having an attitude of cynical distrust, even among younger adults, is linked to increased risk of heart attack, heart disease and earlier death.

The most recent findings, published this week in the journal Neurology, emerged after researchers studied and followed 1,240 Finns who were between the ages of 65 and 79 in 1997. The researchers assessed each participant's cognitive state and mental function in 1998 and then again in 2005. They measured participants' levels of cynicism at the outset by asking each to declare how much they agreed or disagreed with such assertions as "most people will lie to get ahead," "people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or advantage rather than lose it," and "no one cares much what happens to you."

The elderly Finns that ranked in the top one-third of cynics were between two and three times as likely to develop dementia over roughly eight years than those whose distrustful cynicism scores put them in the lower two-thirds of the group. Even after the clinically depressed (whose disorder makes them highly likely to embrace cynical and distrustful views) were taken out of the equation, researchers found that the curmudgeonly were nearly three times likelier than more trusting souls to develop problems of memory, reasoning and planning.

It would be reasonable (although somewhat distrusting) to ask whether these researchers were actually confusing the effects of cynicism with other factors that also affect health, and tend to make a person cynical. Chief among those is socioeconomic status: The poor and disadvantaged are more likely to espouse distrustful attitudes than are people with better education and higher incomes, and the disadvantaged are more likely to smoke, drink more alcohol and have poorer health. 

But dementia was a more likely outcome for the study's cynics even after those factors were accounted for by researchers. When the researchers considered intervening factors such as socioeconomic status and health behaviors such as smoking and drinking, however, they found that those factors -- not mistrust and cynicism -- better explained why many curmudgeons died earlier.

There's growing evidence that the dementia establishes itself years before memory loss becomes apparent. And in light of that, the researchers did acknowledge that some curmedgeons' grouchiness might have been the earliest signs of dementia, unrecognized by assessors. More and better studies will have to flesh that out, they wrote.

For the record, you're a misanthrope if you tend to agree that it's safer to trust nobody, that people largely make friends who are likely to be useful to them, and that most people inwardly dislike putting themselves out to help other people. If you commonly wonder "what hidden reasons another person may have for doing something nice" to you, you might consider psychotherapy or other interventions, which -- by brightening your attitude -- might also keep dementia at bay.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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