Alzheimer's, Dementia, and Your Marriage

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A review of five scientific research studies finds an interesting correlation between marital status and the chance of developing dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairment and other kinds of dementia. The studies, published between 2006 and 2016, found that individuals who were married had a smaller chance of developing dementia.

Alzheimer's, Dementia, and Your Marriage

1) Published in 2016, this study reviewed the health information of more than 2 million individuals between the ages of 50 to 74 in Sweden for a period of ten years.

  • Both men and women who weren't married (which included divorced, separated and widowed persons) had a higher risk of developing dementia than those who were married.
  • Marital status was shown in this study to be a risk factor both for developing early-onset dementia (present before age 65) and late-onset (or typical) dementia. 

2) The second study, published in 2015, involved over 10,000 men and women in Taiwan. Interviews and cognitive assessments took place over the course of two years.

  • Researchers concluded that those who were widowed had 1.4 times greater risk of dementia than did the participants who were married. 

3) Approximately 2500 Chinese men and women over the age of 55 were included in this study which was published in 2014.

  • Being an older male who was widowed or single was correlated with 2.5 times greater risk of developing cognitive impairment when compared to those who were married.
  • In contrast to other studies, this research did not find a significant correlation between the relationship status of women and cognitive functioning. 

4) A fourth study was published in 2009 and compared marital status in midlife to cognitive functioning later in life. Almost 1500 people in Finland were followed for 21 years.

  • The lowest risk for any kind of dementia was for those who were living with a partner in midlife, while not having a midlife partner was tied to twice the risk of dementia in later life.
  • A very high-risk group identified in this study was those who were widowed in midlife and still widowed in late life. This group was almost eight times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease than those who were married at midlife and still married in late life. 
  • Overall, the highest risk in this study was for those who were positive for the ApoE 4 gene (a gene that carries a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease), were single or divorced in mid-life and had remained single or divorced in late life.
  • Interestingly, being single in both mid and late-life carried a lower risk of dementia than being widowed.

5) Over 1000 men in Finland, Italy and the Netherlands were involved in this 2006-published study which spanned ten years.

  • Researchers found that men who were married had the highest scores on cognitive functioning at the start of the time period in the study, and the unmarried men had the lowest scores.
  • This study included a category of men who lived with others (such as children or other family members), and it found that both married men, and men who lived with others, had the smallest cognitive decline over the ten year period.
  • Men who lived alone both at the start and the end of the study had a 3.5 times greater cognitive decline as compared to men who were married both at the start and conclusion of the study.

Factors That Caused These Results

First, it's important to remember that these results demonstrate a correlation, meaning that those who were married or living with someone were less likely to develop dementia, not that being married necessarily caused people to be less at risk.

Some of the researchers of the studies proposed theories as to why dementia risk was decreased in married or cohabiting persons. Possibilities include:

Social InteractionSocial interaction with others has been connected to a smaller risk of dementia. As with being married, socialization hasn't been proven to cause the reduced risk of dementia, but it's possible that the interaction stimulates the brain and thus provides some protection from dementia.

Cognitive ReserveBeing in a relationship may foster regular communication, some of which may stimulate intellectual thought. This, in turn, has been correlated with the development of cognitive reserve, a protective effect where the brain is better able to compensate for possible decreases in functioning. 

DepressionDepression is a risk factor for dementia. One of the studies above found that persons who were widowed were at an increased risk for depression, likely due to the loss of their partner. Being married has been tied to a lower risk of depression, which in turn may decrease the risk of developing dementia.

StressExperiencing chronic stress has also been correlated with a higher risk of dementia. Researchers theorized in one of the studies that the ability to share the challenges and joys of life with a partner could reduce stress, and thus reduce the risk of dementia.

Physical ActivityWhile there are many active people who live alone, according to the results of one of these studies, married persons were the most physically active. Physical activity has been repeatedly connected to a lower risk of dementia.

Mutual Accountability for Health: In a close relationship such as a marriage, it's also possible that there is more accountability to each other to maintain good physical health and to treat medical concerns. This does not assume that those not in a relationship are ignoring their physical and overall health; rather, it's raising the possibility that living in the same house as someone else may make it less likely that major health concerns are glossed over and hidden. Physical health- specifically conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes- has been correlated with dementia risk.

A Word From Verywell

While this research may be fascinating, marital and relationship issues are sometimes outside of our control. However, most of the possible factors that might contribute to the correlation between dementia risk and marital status are choices that we can freely make. Your best bet is to focus on strategies that have been repeatedly been tied to a reduced dementia risk, such as physical exercise, diet, social interaction and mental activity. 

Sources:

British Medical Journal. July 2, 2009. Association between mid-life marital status and cognitive function in later life: population based cohort study. http://www.bmj.com/content/339/bmj.b2462

British Medical Journal. January 4, 2016. Marital status and risk of dementia: a nationwide population-based prospective study from Sweden. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/1/e008565.full

Dementia and geriatric cognitive disorders. 2014. Marital Status and Cognitive Impairment among Community-Dwelling Chinese Older Adults: The Role of Gender and Social Engagement. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/358584

The Journals of Gerontology. 2006. Marital Status and Living Situation During a 5-Year Period Are Associated With a Subsequent 10-Year Cognitive Decline in Older Men: The FINE Study. https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/61/4/P213/603665

PLOS ONE. September 28, 2015. Marital Status, Lifestyle and Dementia: A Nationwide Survey in Taiwan http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0139154

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