For better or worse? Dementia linked to marital status

Dementia and marital status may be linked, according to a Michigan State University study that found married people are less likely to experience dementia as they age.

But another study revealed how it’s not necessarily marriage that staves of dementia. The types of relationships we have in or out of marriage have the biggest impact.

The Michigan State University study found divorcees are about twice as likely as married people to develop dementia. It also indicated divorced men showed a greater disadvantage than divorced women.

In one study, Professor Hui Liu and colleagues analysed four groups of unmarried individuals: divorced or separated, widowed, never married, and cohabiters. Among them, the divorced had the highest risk of dementia.

“This research is important because the number of unmarried older adults … continues to grow, as people live longer and their marital histories become more complex,” Prof. Liu said.

“Marital status is an important but overlooked social risk/protective factor for dementia.”

Prof. Liu and her fellow researchers analysed data from the Health and Retirement Study from 2000 to 2014. The sample included more than 15,000 respondents aged 52 and older in 2000, measuring their cognitive function every two years.

The researchers also found differing economic resources only partly account for higher dementia risk among divorced, widowed and never-married respondents, but couldn’t account for higher risk in cohabiters.

In addition, health-related factors, such as behaviours and chronic conditions, slightly influenced risk among the divorced and married, but didn’t seem to affect other marital statuses.

“These findings will be helpful for health policy makers and practitioners who seek to better identify vulnerable populations and to design effective intervention strategies to reduce dementia risk,” Prof. Liu said.

Being married or in a relationship doesn’t necessarily slash dementia risk in Western countries. Having a trusted confidante does, according to a separate study by University of New South Wales researchers.

Engaging in our community is also crucial for a longer life, say the researchers.

Relationships are vital not only for emotional health, but also for the health of our brains. However, the type of relationship and the amount of interaction necessary for benefits remained unclear.

The study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, analysed 13 global longitudinal studies, including over 39,000 people aged 65 and above.

“Having a confidante was a very powerful factor for reducing the risk of dementia. It wasn’t just how often you are meeting, but whether you had someone to open your heart to,” says lead author Dr Suraj Samtani.  

Interestingly, only in Asian countries did being married or in a relationship seem to lower dementia risk. This may be due to the greater stigma and ostracism associated with being unmarried in Asian culture, says Dr Samtani. In contrast, for Western countries, regular community engagement and social support played a more significant role.

Socialising with friends or family at least once a month or once a week could halve dementia risk

Saly Mahalingam, the study’s co-author, explained that good social connections help reduce the negative impact of stress on our memory. They can also contribute to cognitive reserve, or our ability to perform brain functions despite brain damage.

“Our message for everyone is to try to meet with friends or family at least monthly and try to open your heart to someone so that you know you are not carrying all the stress inside you, and you can feel lighter, more connected, and happier, and live a longer life.”

Want to make your spouse your best friend and trusted confidante? Consider these five tips:

  1. Communicate openly and honestly: Share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with your spouse to build trust and understanding.
  2. Schedule regular ‘date nights’: Spend quality time together to strengthen your bond and enjoy each other’s company.
  3. Show appreciation and gratitude: Regularly express your love and gratitude to your spouse, creating an atmosphere of warmth and positivity.
  4. Support each other’s interests and passions: Encourage and participate in each other’s hobbies and interests, fostering mutual respect and shared experiences.
  5. Resolve conflicts respectfully: Disagreements are inevitable, but approaching them calmly and respectfully can deepen your bond and foster understanding.

Updated 8 May 2023. Previously published as ‘Could marriage stave off dementia?

Who is your closest confidante? Do you think companionship can help stave off dementia? What is your most important relationship, and why? Do you have a confidante? Why not share your thoughts with our members?

Also read: Over-60s reveal the keys to making and maintaining meaningful friendships

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