PUMPING IRONY: The Heart of the Matter

Dementia has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., so why is it declining in Sweden?

My Lovely Wife and I last week attended our first French 1.5 community education class at a local high school. I think it’s our third attempt to pound a little française into our graying heads. I don’t mind, really, since small doses of public humiliation build character and if I am going to be publicly humiliated I’d rather it come in the form of a language I don’t understand. Besides, everything I’ve read in recent years tells us geezers to keep challenging our brains in order to avoid losing our marbles as we age.

In fact, the big health headline a couple of weeks ago suggested that the cost of caring for those suffering from various forms of dementia has risen to the top of the U.S. healthcare charts, eclipsing even the cost of heart disease and cancer treatment. The report, published in the venerable New England Journal of Medicine, found that the direct costs of treating dementia in the U.S. in 2010 rose to an estimated $109 billion, compared with $102 billion for heart disease and a mere $77 billion for cancer.

What that says to this geezer, who still happens to be in possession of all his meager faculties, is that we’ve got an epidemic on our hands. And it’s partly explained by the fact that folks are living longer and partly by the fact that my Baby Boomer generation is getting to that age when the old gray matter apparently begins to dry up and we start to forget where we put our car keys. Unless we do the Sudoku every day, muddle through the Times crossword on Sunday, and apprenez française or some other vexing way of speaking during the rest of our spare time.

So how do you explain a new study out of Stockholm, Sweden, that shows rates of dementia there actually declining over the past 20 years? It’s not because they speak Swedish.

Improve Your Cardiovascular System, Decrease Likelihood of Dementia

According to researchers at the Karolinski Institute and Stockholm University, the decline is tied to a general reduction in cardiovascular disease among Swedes since the early ’90s. “We know that cardiovascular disease is an important risk factor for dementia. The suggested decrease in dementia risk coincides with the general reduction in cardiovascular disease over recent decades,” lead researcher Chengxuan Qiu, an associate professor at the Aging Research Center, explained in a statement released by the university. “Health check-ups and cardiovascular disease prevention have improved significantly in Sweden, and we now see results of this improvement reflected in the risk of developing dementia.”

This is welcome news, not because I can ignore my French homework, but because it reinforces my own belief that if you want to retain what little lucidity you have, it won’t hurt to keep lifting weights and cranking up your cardio on a regular basis. And the Swedes don’t mention it, but we should all be including plenty of healthy fats in our diets. Your brain, after all, is mostly fat, even if your body isn’t.

I know what you’re thinking: Man, I’d rather study French than go to the gym! I don’t blame you. Exercise can be daunting. Eating right can seem complicated. But I’m here to tell you that you haven’t really suffered until you’ve tried to conjugate irregular verbs like a Parisian. Mon dieu!

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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