Can Being Cynical Cause Dementia?

Q. I am in my mid 60’s and I admit that I am generally quite negative-thinking and cynical. I have constant nagging back pain even though the doctors say there’s nothing wrong with my back.  My grandchildren live 1,000 miles away and I never get to see them.  My friends and neighbors call me Mr. Curmudgeon.  I think all politicians are idiots and our world is going to heck in a hand basket.  I’m always worried about running out of money or winding up in a nursing home.  And I have no patience for incompetence – I truly enjoy finding holes in other people’s “logical” arguments.

My neighbor and long-time friend, Joy, is the opposite of me.  She’s always optimistic, and she even finds positivity in things I complain about. She suggested I go to a chiropractor for my pain.  She showed me how to Skype with my grandchildren.  She referred me to your firm to help protect my assets so I don’t run out of money.  

She also says new research indicates that cynicism and negativity can cause dementia, and since I have a history of Alzheimer’s in my family, she says it’s time for me to start looking at the brighter side of things and live life with a more positive attitude.  Do you know anything about this so-called “research”?

She also mentioned that there is scientific proof that life gets better as we age. Hard to believe with all the aches and pains and problems in the world.   Maybe you can help me prove my friend wrong.

A. Alas, as your friend mentioned, new research does in fact show that those who are cynical and pessimistic are three times more likely to develop dementia as non-cynics. Other studies have also confirmed the benefits of optimism on physical health. A Dutch study in 2004 found the same correlation between pessimism and heart disease and death in elderly people of both sexes. Five years later, a 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.  So in other words, try to be more like your friend!

Some people say that most of life’s happiest, most defining moments occur by the age of 35. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, entitled “Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences” has proven that we’re wrong to think that happiness is correlated with youth.

Researchers who conducted the survey, which consisted of 221 respondents aged 18-79, found that the younger generation associated happiness with extraordinary experiences that happen on occasion, such as traveling to an exotic place, graduating from college, or falling in love. Older respondents, on the other hand, chose ordinary experiences that happen more often, such as enjoying a friend’s company, watching a good movie, or spending a day at the beach, as the things that brought them the most enjoyment and happiness.

Other research, from the book “Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2011) explains some of the reasons why older adults should experience greater happiness than the younger generation:

  • Increased Self-Knowledge: When we are young, other people’s opinions about the choices we make and our overall sense of what we should do with our lives is important. As we get older, we are more prepared for tricky situations because we know who we are and are better prepared for what to expect.
  • More Authentic Relationships: As we age, we become more open about our weaknesses and try not to repeat the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. We begin to appreciate the loyalty of true friends more and more, having less patience for superficial relationships.
  • More Time for Yourself: Older adults have more time for the things they love, including hobbies and interests, family, and volunteer work. Doing what you choose to do with your time can be a real source of fulfillment and contentment.
  • Improved Decision Making: As we get older, we see where we went wrong earlier on, allowing our past mistakes to inform our present decisions.
  • More Courage: Having gotten through hard times, we are less afraid of adversity. We know that life consists of compromises, mixed with a bit of luck and risk, and there is no time like the present.
  • Enhanced Generosity: As we get older, we become more interested in helping others and contributing to the greater good more than our own self-betterment. We become more sympathetic toward others, having found that we all face the same fundamental predicaments.
  • Deeper Spirituality: The search for meaning goes on throughout the lifespan, but in our later years such questions become more urgent and begin to take precedence. Going through bereavement wakes us up in a manner that shows us what really matters in life.
  • Living Life to the Fullest: When we are young, we look at elders and cannot see the exciting developments going on inside. In reality, the most lively people are those who have death in sight and so are determined to live life to the fullest.

As you can see, there are lots of reasons for seniors to be positive.

Often times, the greatest happiness and stress relief comes in the form of peace of mind.  As you are enjoying your life, it is a good idea to plan for your future and for your loved ones. Our firm is dedicated to helping seniors preserve dignity, quality of life, and financial security. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us at our Virginia Elder Law Fairfax office at 703-691-1888 or at our Virginia Elder Law Fredericksburg office at 540-479-1435 to make an appointment for an introductory consultation.

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