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Leo Cooney ’69MD: prevention for the pope

“I know nothing about Pope Benedict's health, either cognitive or physical functions,” says Leo Cooney ’69MD. But as an expert in geriatric medicine, here’s what he does know: “It's a good idea to step away from those kinds of responsibilities when you're 85.”

Cooney—the Humana Professor at the Yale School of Medicine, founder of its geriatrics program, and a Catholic mentor at Yale—found his expert commentary in demand this week after the pope’s surprise announcement February 11 that he will retire because he lacks the necessary “strength of mind and body.”

Approaching his 86th birthday, Benedict has outlived most of his predecessors and is the first pontiff in 600 years to step down rather than dying in office.

Although people worldwide are living longer, “the average 85-year-old in the United States has a high prevalence of disability and also a significant prevalence of dementia,” Cooney observed in an NPR interview.

How significant? “The prevalence of dementia roughly doubles every five years after the age of 70,” Cooney said. “So, from 70 to 75, it would be 3 percent, 75 to 80, 6 percent, 80 to 85, 12 percent, 85 to 90, 25 percent and 90 plus, 50 percent.”

Those are sobering numbers. Cooney told Medicine@Yale four years ago—as he turned 65—that he had no retirement plans of his own. But, he said, “I watch the student evaluations very closely. When they start to say, ‘He can talk about the Red Sox, but he doesn’t seem to know what’s wrong with the patient,’ I’m outta here!”

Filed under Leo Cooney, geriatrics, Pope Benedict
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