[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
By JAMES GORMAN
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
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
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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