November 30, 2017
Those of us who at some time in our lives have been “head over heels” for a partner or spouse probably are not headed for dementia in the future, according to findings of a study released on November 28.
Indeed, a paper published this week in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry asserts that individuals who always have been single have a 42% higher risk of developing dementia than people who are married or in a committed relationship. The study was based on 15 analyses with a cumulative cohort of over 800,000 patients.
Dementia—a decline in memory or cognition severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities—usually occurs in older age. The most common form is Alzheimer’s disease.
Those who are widowed could have a 20% higher risk, the researchers determined. They could not examine whether the duration of being widowed or divorced had any influence on the findings.There was no similar risk found for those who had been divorced.
Marital status has the potential to affect dementia risk by increasing daily social interaction, the researchers found. Specifically, marriage may offer more opportunities for communications and contacts within the local community, which is associated with reduced dementia risk and reduced harmful lifestyle behaviors, they said.
They also determined that bereavement or divorce in people who have been married may promote dementia development through stress, which is pathogenic and associated with increased dementia risk.
By comparison, the health of unmarried Americans is worse than that of couples; being married is related to improved cancer survival; and widowhood is associated with disability in older people.13
That higher risk for singles remained even after researchers accounted for a person’s physical health, said Andrew Sommerlad, a research fellow and psychiatrist at University College London in Britain. That increased risk appeared to be similar to other known dementia risks, such as having diabetes or high blood pressure, he said.
“We don’t think that it is marriage itself or wearing a wedding ring which reduces people’s risk of dementia,” he told CNN recently.
“Instead, our research suggests that the possible protective effect is linked to various lifestyle factors which are known to accompany marriage, such as living a generally healthier lifestyle and having more social stimulation as a result of living with a spouse or partner,” he said.
Such factors as diet, physical activity, smoking and sleep also affect the risk.
The good news? As being unmarried becomes more of a social norm, it is likely that lifestyle differences between married and unmarried people are lessening, he researchers believe.
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