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Will Alzheimer’s Skyrocket?

In 2006, the very dark comedy Idiocracy played local theatres for what seemed like a few hours before disappearing into DVD bins and obscure cable channels. Its Rip van Winkle story involves a not particularly bright Army librarian, recruited into a Pentagon hibernation program, awakening centuries into the future and finding himself the most intelligent person in America.

This is not because he’s particularly bright, but because everyone else has become seriously stupid. They’ve long forgotten how to read, operate self-service gas pumps, open Coke bottles. Get the drift? You can rent Idiocracy here, rated R for language.

But perhaps Idiocracy the reality will be here far sooner than the movie’s half millennium. Researchers now know that three important lifestyle choices help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

The first is exercise. It doesn’t take much, roughly 30 minutes a day three or four times a week. However, polls reveal we exercised even less in 2009 than we did in 2008.

Obesity is a second risk factor for Alzheimer’s. But between our unhealthful diets, the craze for gargantuan portions, and our inactivity, we’re morphing into a nation of fat people, it was reported last week, with Mississippi leading the pack. I was in North Carolina last week and was astonished to see very large people in restaurants shoveling food into their mouths as if the Taliban had invaded South Carolina and this was the last meal.

The third Alzheimer’s risk factor is an overall lack of brain activity. Intellectual stimulation of any kind is preventive. Many studies have confirmed that cognitive decline with age can be slowed by a lifetime of staying engaged in daily mentally challenging activities.

And here’s the rub.

Every bit of available evidence shows that Americans are dumbing themselves down. Bob Herbert’s important op-ed piece in the New York Times, Putting Our Brains on Hold, informs readers that the US, which once led the world in percentage of students with college degrees has during the past decade plummeted to 12th among developed nations, according to data from the College Board. Herbert worries “we’re allowing ourselves to become a nation of nitwits.”

And just a day before Herbert’s piece was published, the bookstore chain Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale. Last year Borders went bankrupt in the UK and it’s been teetering on it here since 2009. Independent bookstores have gone the way of the great auk.

Analysts in the industry attribute this trend not only to internet competition, but to an overall decline in reading over the past 20 years. The amount of your day devoted to media of any stripe is referred to as your “media time,” and during the past ten years the amount of that media time devoted to the physical act of sustained reading has plummeted to a barely visible wedge on a pie chart, unable to compete with offerings like MySpace and Facebook, your iPod, TV, etc.

On a historical basis, sociologist Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason points out that the US has never really been a nation that values intellect. Our “independent pioneer spirit” is accompanied by an actual hostility to education that’s resulted in vast areas of our nation becoming dumber and dumber.

So if we’re now on the obese, slothful, and kind of dumb side, with no tsunami of self-improvement on the horizon, it may be safe to say we can expect more Alzheimer’s. A real American “Idiocracy” arriving a lot sooner than anyone ever dreamed.

PS: For The Onion’s usual enlightened perspective on this, click here.

Leave a Comment

  1. Jill Watson says:

    I laughed, I cried, I feared for my future. Thanks for for reminding us to put down the smartphone, get off the couch, slim down and learn something new!

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