If you look after your heart and educate your brain, you have a better chance of avoiding or at least delaying dementia, new research suggests. Boston University School of Medicine researchers say data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has tracked the health of thousands of people in the Massachusetts town since 1948, reveals that "since 1977, there has been a decline in the incidence of dementia of 20% per decade," NBC News reports. Heart disease rates dropped alongside dementia rates, but only among people who had at least a high school education, according to the researchers, whose study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine. "It's very good news," a National Institute on Aging epidemiologist tells USA Today. "We're seeing one generation after another where the risk is going down."
The decline was steepest in cases of vascular dementia, which is caused by impaired supply of blood to the brain, though there was also a decline in Alzheimer's cases. The research suggests that dementia will not be as huge a health care problem in coming decades as earlier believed, the New York Times reports, though since people are living longer, the number of cases is still expected to go up—and rising rates of diabetes and obesity could send dementia rates back up again. Still, researchers say they hope the study will inspire people to improve heart health and keep their brains busy. "People may say, 'I don't mind getting a heart attack. It's a good way to go,'" study co-author Sudha Seshadri says. "But heart disease may not just damage your heart. It could cause dementia. And I don't know of anybody who thinks dementia is a good way to go." (A sick sense of humor could be a danger sign.)