Health: What can we learn from the Danes?

By Stephanie Vilendrer

It’s the start to another school year, and it feels great to return to Mac after a semester abroad! Even so, part of me constantly misses the incredible experience of studying in Denmark: riding my bike down the winding brick roads of Copenhagen at dusk, sipping Carlsberg in cozy “bodegas” (the Danish word for pubs), and befriending the reserved but congenial Danes. Before going abroad, I was looking forward to immersing myself in another culture, but I also had another goal in mind: to find out why the Danes have been called “the happiest people on Earth” and to see if their health might be a contributor. My four months in Denmark were filled with experiences that revealed many differences between the Scandinavian and American ways of life. Much of this was attributable to differences in health care systems, and I left Denmark with a better perspective on the interplay between these structures, a society’s culture and population health. People told me that the Danes are beautiful. I can confirm that it’s true. Perhaps it’s their striking facial features, gentle eyes or tall stature that set them apart in a crowd, but I also believe that beauty is a product of more than genes alone. The Danish lifestyle lends itself to making healthy choices. Food found in supermarkets and specialty shops is free of artificial ingredients, locally sourced and often organic. Walking and biking to work are just as popular as driving; in the streets of Copenhagen, rush hour looks more like the Tour de France than your typical traffic jam. Danes on average work far less than Americans—about 37 hours per week compared to over 50 in the U.S. In addition to the structural aspects of Danish society are cultural aspects that also positively impact health. The Danish emphasis on friends, family and home life contributes to a sense of social support that is important for emotional well-being and stress management. “Hygge” is a Danish term that has no direct translation but was described to me by a Danish friend as a “warm, cozy feeling you get while sipping beers with your closest friends.” My experience taught me that the Danes are a realistic and hard-working people, but that leading a balanced lifestyle takes highest priority. Of course, no nation is perfect, and Denmark is no exception with regard to health. The Danes love their beer. In fact, Carlsberg, Tuborg and Royal are all Danish beer brands. Plenty of people smoke, too. 36 percent of Danish men over age 15 are smokers. However, it seems that their overall approach to life outweighs the negative health consequences of these behaviors. They emphasize balanced living, close relationships with friends and family, the high quality of their foods, the practice of sharing home-cooked meals over conversation, and the incorporation of physical exercise in one’s daily commute. These are all lifestyle factors that contribute to a nation of generally happy and healthy people. Moreover, any conversation of population health would not be complete without a discussion of health care systems. In Denmark, it is especially important to highlight some key aspects of their system that have a strong positive impact on the Danes’ health. With its compulsory, universal health care system, the Danish government demonstrates a strong financial commitment to the health of its citizens. General physicians act as gatekeepers, treating about 90 percent of cases at the primary care level and sending only 10 percent to specialists and hospital care. (In the U.S., general practitioners have no “gatekeeper” responsibilities). Huge emphasis is placed on disease prevention, which is conducted by Danish “health municipalities” that provide such services as mental health counseling, fitness facilities, drug and alcohol recovery programs and nutritional coaching. The ramifications of a centralized system are reduced administrative costs and careful oversight of medical resources. While the U.S. has many current measures directed toward disease prevention, there is little to no financial obligation for the government to protect the health of citizens. The health of Americans would benefit from the implementation of more organizational and disease prevention strategies such as these. There is a lesson to be learned from all of this that could have huge benefits for your health. The simple message is to follow the example of the Danes: lead a balanced lifestyle for better health and increased happiness. In other words, do everything in moderation (except for moderation itself, as a close friend of mine likes to tease)! Remember: relationships with friends and family, and—I can’t emphasize it enough—the simple practices of eating well and exercising are invaluable as well. Here’s best of wishes for your good health throughout the new academic year. As the Danes would say, “Skål!” refresh –>