Over the years, the definition of cynicism has shifted dramatically—from an ascetic school of philosophy in ancient Greece (spelled with a capital “C”) to, today, a distrust of others for being selfishly motivated. What hasn’t changed so much about cynicism is its association with mental decline.
For example, the best-known Cynic of the Classical Greece era, one Diogenes of Sinope, slept in an empty wine barrel, masturbated in public and urinated on critics. (Diogenes syndrome now refers to “an older adult living in squalor,” according to the British Medical Journal.) And then there’s philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who at 44 had a nervous breakdown that eventually led to his dementia and death. While deeply influenced by the Cynics, much of Nietzsche’s writing is arguably closer to today’s concept of cynicism—distrust in social systems and, by extension, the people who partake in them.
Researchers now think there might be a direct link between this attitude and mental decline, beyond these historical examples: People with high levels of “cynical distrust,” which they define as “the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns,” are more likely to develop dementia, according to a study published Wednesday in the online issue of Neurology.
Over the course of eight years, researchers examined 1,449 people, whose average age was 71, to determine whether they had dementia. They also gave study participants a questionnaire “to measure their level of cynicism,” according to the study’s authors. (Per the questionnaire, participants were asked to say how much they agreed with statements such as “I think most people would lie to get ahead.”)
They found that “people with high levels of cynical distrust were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism,” even when adjusted for other dementia risk factors, such as smoking, according to a statement on the study.
“This is not explained by the lifestyle choices or other factors like age or sex,” study author Anna-Maija Tolppanen, Ph.D., of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, tells Newsweek. “Personality might actually affect brain health.”
The study does not explain whether the cynicism causes the dementia or whether bodily and mental decline in the elderly enables a bleak opinion of others. The study detected a correlation, the cynicism-dementia link, not causation.
However, Tolppanen says, social interaction is key to cognitive health—so any worldview that might deter socialization could plausibly have an impact.
“We know that people who engage in social activities are more likely to preserve their cognitive function as they age,” she says.
Tolppanen’s advice for cynics?
“Even if you are reserved toward others, it is really important to be socially active,” she says. “That has been shown to be good for your brain.”
Cynicism has also been linked to other health problems, such as heart disease. According to this study, however, extreme cynics do not die any earlier than those who are more trusting.