When It Comes To Memory, Scandinavian Seniors May Be Sharper Than the Rest of Us — Here’s Why
Stay young by living like they do in Nordic countries.
Did you know it may be possible to train your brain to maintain your memory? A 2022 scientific article published in the journal Brain Sciences by Scandinavian researchers theorized that in order to keep your memory sharp — despite aging — you should continuously focus on three things: motion (physical exercise), relation (social interactions), and passion (learning new things). These are considered key elements for contrasting the loss of the grey and white matter of the brain. So, in order to keep your memory up to snuff, it’s important to stay active, stay socially connected, and have hobbies. As it happens, these things may be second nature for most Scandinavian seniors, from whom we could probably learn a lot.
According to UN data, the average life expectancy for someone born today in the United States is 79.1 years. By contrast, Scandinavian and Nordic countries Sweden (83.3), Norway (82.9), Denmark (81.4), Iceland (83.5), and Finland (82.5) all rank higher and live longer than we Americans do.
They’re happier, too. In 2022, for the fifth year in a row, Finland topped the rankings in the World Happiness Report. Other main Nordic countries — Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway — all ranked in the top ten as well, far ahead of the US, the UK, and Canada. Perhaps we can all up our happiness quotients, live longer, and retain our memories if we take a few tips from the Nords. Keep reading to learn how.
Scandinavians are no strangers to staying active. “Friluftsliv” is an amalgamation of the Norwegian words for fresh air and lifestyle, and the expression literally translates as “open-air living” — which makes sense, given that Scandinavians are big hikers, and very passionate about nature. If hiking is too extreme a sport to get you moving, don’t fret: There’s also a type of stroll known as “Nordic walking,” an exercise mimicking the motion of cross-country skiing by using poles to push yourself. Nordic walking combines cardiovascular exercise with a vigorous muscle workout for your shoulders, arms, core, and legs; when you walk with Nordic poles, you’ll activate your upper body muscles as well as your lower ones.
Alternatively, you can start with something less conventional: pretending you’re always late. Pick up your pace a tiny bit (as if you were running behind for a doctor’s appointment) during everyday activities, like walking to your car or getting the mail. A study published in Neurology found that lower levels of LTPA (a.k.a. leisure-time physical activity) were associated with greater decline in cognitive performance, including executive function, semantic memory, and processing speed. A different study published in Neurology found that among Swedish women, a high cardiovascular fitness in midlife was associated with a decreased risk of dementia. So, get moving whenever you can!
“Co-housing” is a term that describes an intentional community of private homes clustered around a shared space. The term originated in Denmark in late 1960s, and is now a popular method of Scandinavian living, with countries like Sweden seeing spikes in residents co-habitating together in communities. Danish architecture has historically put an emphasis on communal living, too — e.g. with housing complexes that boast a shared courtyard to encourage neighborly interaction.
If you can’t live with or near others, there’s another trick you can try: When you bump into an acquaintance at the supermarket or video-chat with your daughter, gesture for emphasis as you talk. “Emotional gestures” (whether you’re giving a thumbs-up or simply moving your hands from time to time to punctuate words) may heighten feelings of connection for both parties, suggested a paper presented at the 2nd Conference of the International Society of Gesture Studies. Gestures emphasize your state of mind, which is important since sharing emotion is the foundation of human connection. The CDC reports social isolation is associated with a 50 percent increased risk of dementia — so slash your risk by staying connected.
Scandinavians work shorter hours than Americans do — and as an added bonus, most of them receive generous vacation packages. Some companies have even experimented with six-hour working days or a four-day work week. So, what does spending less time at the office translate into? More time for your hobbies, of course.
A study in the Journals of Gerontology found that engagement in leisure activities in midlife was positively associated with cognitive ability level. Therefore, enjoying a hobby for an hour a week may help boost your memory. Focusing on a creative task gives the brain a workout that strengthens existing neural pathways and builds new connections. Tip: Mark “hobby time” on your calendar. Making an “appointment with yourself” could increase the odds you’ll follow through with it.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.