New Study Confirms Marital Situation Critical To Dementia Risk

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Extensive new research has revealed that people who are single into old age or widowed are much more likely to develop dementia than those who are married.

In an analysis of 14 studies containing data on more than 800,000 people over age 65, researchers from University College London found that single individuals had a 42 percent higher risk of developing dementia compared to married people. Those who were widowed faced a 20 percent higher risk.

Experts attribute the findings to the tendencies of married couples to be more socially active, have more frequent conversations, maintain healthier eating habits and exercise more regularly — behaviors which have been shown to improve brain health and protect against dementia.

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According to lead researcher Dr. Andrew Sommerlad of University College, “It’s not the process of getting married or having a ring on your finger that protects you against the development of dementia.

“But I think what this study tells us is about the lifestyle factors that might come along with marriage which might affect someone’s risk of developing dementia.”

Researchers discovered that single people were more likely to be in poor physical health, a risk factor for dementia, and widowed individuals were more likely to be less educated, which is also linked to higher risk for the disease.

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Even after the results were weighted for age, gender, health and education level, researchers round that single people were 23 percent more likely to develop dementia than married people, and widows were 12 percent more at risk.

“I think it is likely to be explained by the fact married people have more lifetime interaction with other people,” Sommerlad said. “That is stimulating to your brain and it gives you more strategies to be able to cope with the damage to your brain that dementia causes – what’s known as cognitive reserve.”

Researchers found no increased risk of developing dementia in people who were divorced, likely because they might continue to pursue an active life and experience a high level of social interaction with children, friends or new partners.

When addressing why divorced individuals were not affected in the same way as widows, Sommerlad said, “Other studies have found the process of bereavement is extremely distressing, so it could be the effect of this stress that affects (widows’) ability to cope.”

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The current findings echo those previously discovered by researchers. A 2009 study published in the British Medical Journal found that social interaction is key to sustaining healthy brain function into later life.

Miia Kivipelto of the Karolinska Institutet medical university, Sweden, said in 2009, “Living in a relationship with a partner might imply cognitive and social challenges that have a protective effect against cognitive impairment in later life.”

Regarding the current study, Dr. Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research U.K. said, “There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link.

“People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health. Spouses may help to encourage healthy habits, look out for their partner’s health and provide important social support.

“Staying physically, mentally and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and these are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”