[Paleopsych] NYT: The Benefits of Looking on the Dark Side

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Thu Apr 7 17:00:22 UTC 2005

Health > Side Effects: The Benefits of Looking on the Dark Side


    Just when I had started to relax it happened again. In the past I
    worried a lot about being pessimistic because a variety of research
    suggested that optimists had better health odds.

    I didn't see much of a chance for change. I hadn't been able to stick
    to exercise or eating lots of vegetables or keeping my desk neat and
    organized, so I was pretty pessimistic about becoming optimistic.

    On one score, however, I figured I had an edge. Other research hinted
    that an active mind could help fend off Alzheimer's disease. I have an
    active mind - distracted perhaps, hard to corral, kind of sour, but
    certainly active.

    I tend to hop back and forth from one interest to another - chess,
    boat building, guitar, the intricacies of miso soup. Each interest has
    a literature to master, problems to solve, a new way of thinking to
    explore. I thought all this thinking would help keep my mind sharp.

    Well, maybe not. Dr. Robert S. Wilson of Rush University Medical
    Center in Chicago and several colleagues reported in the January issue
    of Neurology that there was a clear correlation between a proneness to
    distress and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's.

    He didn't propose any causal relationship. But when a scientist says
    it's just a correlation, I always imagine George Costanza saying to
    Jerry Seinfeld, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

    George's character, by the way, is a nice example of pessimism, and
    worry. Larry David, the star of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," helped invent
    George, based on his own personality. Both George and Mr. David
    illustrated that there was at least one benefit to looking on the dark
    side. Expecting the worst can make for a lot of laughs.

    What Dr. Wilson studied was not pessimism but distress proneness,
    which is not exactly worry, but something like it. The study involved
    about 1,000 people studied over six years. Even correcting for other
    factors like genes known to increase susceptibility to Alzheimer's, it
    turned out that those likely to be distressed were more likely to
    develop the disease than the others.

    The effect was less strong in African-Americans than in whites. Dr.
    Wilson noted that "African-Americans have been disproportionately
    exposed to social conditions considered to be stressful" but said this
    did not explain the differences. Nor did he find any significant
    racial differences in general emotional states or proneness to

    After reading the report, I had to admit that the numbers were sound.
    And even though I had stopped worrying about being pessimistic, I knew
    which group I would be in if I were part of the study.

    So now I was distressed about my proneness to distress, worried about
    being worried, which made me worried about being worried about being -
    you get the idea.

    When I encounter research like this I wonder, Why are they doing this
    to me again? I know, of course, that the actual goal of Dr. Wilson is
    to understand a really awful disease. And in the long run, the more
    that is known about Alzheimer's the better, for both prevention and

    But what about the distressed among us? Should we relax, calm down,
    take it easy? Probably, but what are the odds?

    Science may offer some hope. The reign of the gene continues to become
    stronger and stronger. Many observers find this development
    unfortunate. If genetic determinism takes over our view of life,
    people may be tempted to forgo policies for social improvement. They
    may be tempted to ignore the fact that genes always interact with

    For me, however, and other pessimists and worriers, there is, I have
    to say, a bright side. If I am predestined, by the precepts of a new
    genetic Calvinism, to worry, then I don't need to worry because
    there's nothing I can do.

    My genes have done a few good things for me. My cholesterol stays
    within tolerable limits. I don't gain weight easily. Despite lack of
    exercise and regular consumption of potato chips, I am in generally
    good health.

    On the downside, I've never been a fast runner and I tend to see the
    glass as half empty. But, then, if personality is as heavily
    influenced by genes as body type, there's nothing I can do about it.

    This doesn't mean I'll stop worrying. It just means I can stop
    worrying about worrying. I don't know whether this is Calvinism or
    Zen, but what it suggests is that I may be able to relax after all, to
    just sit back and enjoy my sense of impending doom.

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