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Is Your Bad Mood Rotting Your Brain?

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A new study from Finland has found that individuals who are the most cynical have an almost three times greater risk of developing dementia when they age. Find out more below.

A new study from Finland has revealed that an individual’s personality can affect their risk of developing dementia later in life. Finnish researchers from the Department of Neurology, Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition, and major Finnish universities found that hostility and a generally cynical outlook on life led to additional health problems, including dementia. This study was conducted after results from past studies found that a bad attitude about life increased a person’s risk of developing inflammation and heart problems.

The Finnish researchers wanted to examine further the link between attitude and health. Senior study author Anna-Maija Tolppanen, said in a statement to Reuters Health, “This makes sense, as previous studies have linked cynical distrust to e.g. lower socioeconomic position which itself is related to worse health outcomes.” Tolppanen works as a neurology researcher at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio. "We have seen some studies that show people who are more open and optimistic have a lower risk for dementia so we thought this was a good question to ask,” she told CNN.

Study Details

The research team identified “cynicism” as the belief that others are motivated by selfish interests. The study was conducted over a 10-year period, then the data was analyzed and finally released to the public in May 2014. The team examined 1.500 elderly Fins between the ages of 65 and 79 in 1997 and again in 2007.

Each participant was examined for attitudes, character, and incidence of dementia. The researchers used an 8-question survey to determine the cynicism level of each participant. Higher scores indicated a greater level of cynicism. By the end of the study, 622 participants completed the test. The study was controlled for socioeconomic factors, age, sex, health status, and lifestyles, such as smoking and alcohol use.

The study not only found that higher cynicism scores led to an increased risk for developing dementia, but the study also found that individuals who had a sour outlook on life were more likely to smoke and weigh more.

The participants were almost divided into three even groups based on their cynicism levels. The smallest group was the high cynicism group, which contained 164 people. Participants with moderate cynicism were the largest group, with 246 people. The low-cynicism group contained 212 people. In total, 46 study participants were diagnosed with dementia over the course of the study. The low-cynicism group had 9 cases of dementia, the medium-cynicism group had 13 cases of dementia, and the high cynicism group had 14 cases of dementia.

When the data was analyzed by study researchers, it was found that individuals in the high-cynicism group had a dementia risk three times that of individuals in the lowest cynicism group. Study researchers want consumers to know that this study does not necessarily prove that having a bad attitude directly causes health problems. This study was a correlation study, rather than a causation study.

Study researchers do not know if it is the attitude itself that leads to health problems or if the attitude leads to an increase in unhealthy behaviors that cause health problems. “Together with the previous research it strongly suggests that our personality may affect our health,” Tolppanen said. The report states that further research is needed in a larger group of people to identify what role cynicism plays in dementia risk.

If personality outlook can influence health, the study reports, then it is important to modify attitudes to improve overall health and a higher quality of life. 

The Dangers of Cynicism

What exactly is cynicism? According to personality expert Dr. Hilary A. Tindle from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and author of “Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging,” states that cynicism is a form of anger and mistrust directed at others.

While doing research for her book, Tindle found that cynical people exercised less, weigh more, smoke more, and are less likely to follow medical advice. Their stress responses are higher and they are prone to an increased rate of inflammation throughout the body. In general, a cynical person is more likely to lead an unhealthy life. According to Tindle, these factors can lead to problems like accelerated heart disease and an increased risk of developing dementia. High blood pressure and inflammation damage the small blood vessels in the brain, which are necessary for maintaining cognitive function.

Dr. Tindle told Reuters Health, “I think in the near future cynicism and other psychological attitudes will be incorporated medically.”

Dr. Tolppanen explained how a cynical outlook could affect memory in the study report. “People with different personality traits may be more or less likely to engage in activities that are beneficial for cognition, such as healthy diet, cognitive or social activities, or exercise. Or personality may act via morphological changes or structural differences in brains. Also, inflammation has been suggested as one link between cynicism and worse health outcomes, she said."

So, how dangerous is cynicism, really? The results of the following studies may surprise you.


  • A study conducted by the American Heart Association in 2009 studied nearly 100,000 women and found that women with hostile life attitudes had a higher rate of death from heart problems.
  • A 1995 study published in Health Psychology found that cynical attitudes led to greater suffering from stress and less benefit from social support.
  • In 2013, researchers from the Montreal Heart Institute in Canada found that older adults suffering from cynical life outlooks had a harder time processing metabolic energy, which leads to weight gain.


Contributing Factors in Dementia Risk

According to medical experts, a person’s risk of developing dementia is based on a variety of factors- some of which can be prevented. Dementia is categorized by a decline in factors including:

Dementia Affects:


  • Thinking speed
  • Memory
  • Judgment
  • Mental agility
  • Language
  • Understanding


 Factors that can lead to an increased risk of developing dementia include alcohol use, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, a stressed lifestyle, smoking, diabetes, anger, and lack of exercise.

Past studies have found that a cynical outlook on life can lead to cancer-related deaths and a higher rate for developing coronary heart disease and cardiovascular problems.

Is Cynicism Permanent?

You might think that cynicism is simply an irreversible personality trait, but according to the Finnish study authors, they believe it is possible to reverse a poor life outlook. Tindle said in a statement to CNN, "I am also certain that people can learn to change -- they change every day in that they quit smoking, they lose weight, they cut ties in unhealthy friendships. The ultimate message is people are not 'doomed' if they have cynical tendencies."

The Power of the Mind

Modern Western medicine is just now coming to terms with the concept that your mental health can play a large role in your physical health. Regardless of whether a happier outlook directly influences health or simply leads to a healthier lifestyle, it is clear that happier people are healthier. Studies have shown that happier people have fewer health problems. All of the studies listed above stating that bad attitudes lead to poor health also found that good attitudes lead to better health.

One study from Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 found that regardless of other factors, happy people were less likely to get sick and had milder symptoms when they did get sick. This prompted the study researchers to say, "We need to take more seriously the possibility that positive emotional style is a major player in disease risk."

How to Reverse Cynicism

If you find yourself having thoughts of doom and gloom, you are not alone. Many adults feel moderately or severely cynical about life. However, it is possible to reverse the feelings of distrust and anger and lead a healthier life. As a bonus, you will not only reduce your risk for cognitive decline, but you will feel happier, too. You may have to work a little harder than someone who feels naturally happy, but with time and practice, it will become easier to have a happier outlook on life.

According to a survey conducted by the charity Action for Happiness, self-acceptance is one of the biggest ways to improve the outlook of life. However, the survey showed that few people practice self-acceptance on a regular basis.

The University of Hertfordshire worked with Action for Happiness to find 10 habits that lead to a healthier outlook on life and reduced cynicism. These habits include:

Being Kind to Self and Others

According to data from Action for Happiness, individuals who act kindly to one another and themselves are more likely to have a better outlook on life.

Allow room for mistakes in your own life as well as the life of others.

Practice kind habits and praise things that you and others do well. There is no shame in admitting that you are good at something.

Identify Personal Strengths

Since self-acceptance plays a large role in creating a better outlook on life, it is important to know your own personal strengths. If you cannot identify these on your own, ask a trusted friend or your spouse what they admire most about you and what your strengths are.

Spend Time Alone in Thought

Often, we are overwhelmed with activity and entertainment, which leaves little time for reflection. Carving out a specific time to calm down and tune into your feelings can help prevent feelings of frustration, stress, and cynicism.

10 Keys to Happier Living

Action for Happiness has created 10 keys to happier living that are scientifically proven to reduce cynicism and boost happiness. The 10 keys use the acronym GREAT DREAM to make them easier to remember.


Giving: give to others

Relating: connect with others

Exercising: Exercise is important for health

Appreciating: state what makes you happy

Trying out: always learn new things

Direction: create goals and directions for life

Resilience: don’t let failure and setbacks get you down

Emotion: think positive thoughts and don’t dwell on negative situations and people 

Acceptance: accept yourself and others

Meaning: find meaning in life by connecting with worthwhile causes

Other Steps to Improve Life Outlook

The GREAT DREAM principle is a great method to work on improving your life outlook. However, if you are a confirmed life-long cynic, there may be other factors that are contributing to your hostility and distrust of the world. You may find the following strategies helpful in resetting your outlook on life:

Emotional Freedom Technique

The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a form of acupuncture that is designed to clear negative emotions. EFT reprograms the body by stimulating energy meridian points in the body by tapping on nerve receptors. The safest way to use this form of therapy is by finding a qualified EFT therapist to oversee sessions.

Sleep and Meditation

It makes sense that lack of sleep can drive up your stress level and lead to a less kind outlook on life. According to Web MD, sleep is essential for processing memories and making them “stick” in the brain. Through meditation, a person can learn to let go of stress and think clearly and calmly about situations, which can prevent a cynical life outlook. The combination of healthy sleep and meditation can go a long way toward improving a person’s life outlook.


The foods that you eat can contribute to mood and an overall sense of well being. Dietitian Elizabeth Somer, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness, states that what you eat and how you eat can play a large role in how you feel. According to her findings, there are six important changes that everyone can make to improve their mood and overall happiness and life outlook:

Eat less fat: The average American eats too much of the wrong kind of fat. Cooked, processed fats like vegetable oil and trans fats are difficult for the body to process and lead to inflammation. Fat takes longer for the body to digest, which could also contribute to sluggish behavior and irritability.

Eat the right fats: Fat is a necessary nutrient for the body, but the right fats are essential to protecting the memory and boosting overall mood. Most Americans are severely deficient in Omega-3 fats, which come from sources like eggs and fish. Omega 3 fats boost the immune system, improve memory, and fight depression.

Eat regular meals: Eating erratically forces the body into “starvation mode,” which prompts the body to store food as fat, rather than use it for energy. Regular meals can also cut down on binge eating, which leads to weight gain.

Increase complex carb intake: Somer stays that many people are deficient in carbs, which are necessary for a balanced mood and feelings of happiness. Rather than avoiding all carbs, switch out unhealthy, empty carbs for complex carbs like whole grains and vegetables.

Drink with intelligence: According to Somer, beverages like sugary drinks, sodas, juice, and drinks with caffeine lead to mood spikes and drops, which can make anyone grumpy. She suggests sticking to mood-regulating beverages, like water, tea, and milk.

Eat the right nutrients: Certain nutrients contribute to a healthier outlook on life and improve cognitive function. Many people are deficient in iron, vitamin B12, zinc, iodine, and calcium, which are all important for preserving cognitive function and boosting mood. Improving the digestive tract, by consuming probiotics and fermented foods can also boost the mood and prevent energy slumps.

Preventing a Cynical Lifestyle

Even lifelong cynics can change their outlook on life with a few lifestyle changes. If you have been living a cynical lifestyle, a few simple changes can help reduce your risk of developing memory loss and dementia as you age. The right diet, healthy sleep, and the GREAT DREAM strategy can all help reverse the damaging effects of cynicism and reduce your risk of developing dementia by nearly 300 percent.





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