Can marriage save you from dementia?

Is a key to good health a long marriage?

According to a recent study, a long marriage or relationship may offer some protection against dementia.

In a study published on WebMD, researchers found that compared with both divorced people and lifelong singles, older adults in a long-term marriage were less likely to develop dementia.

Roughly 11 per cent were diagnosed with dementia after age 70, compared with 12 per cent to 14 per cent of their divorced or single counterparts.

Study co-author Bjorn Heine Strand, a senior scientist with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said the results reinforced previous research.

“Marriage has been reported to be associated with reduced dementia risk in numerous studies, and our results add to this evidence,” he told WebMD.

Higher risk

A 2017 study found lifelong singles and widowers were at heightened risk of developing the disease.

The researchers found that people who remained single throughout their life were 42 per cent more likely to develop dementia, after taking age and sex into account.

In the recent study, Mr Strand’s team found marital status was not strongly tied to the risk of milder impairments. But there was a clear relationship with dementia risk: Staying married conferred more protection, versus being divorced (consistently or “intermittently”) or unmarried (which counted singles and people who lived with a partner).

While researchers agree on the findings, they are yet to find out why.

The researchers explored physical health conditions, such as heart disease, depression, lower education levels, smoking and being sedentary that have all been tied to higher dementia risk, but none of those factors seemed to fully account for why divorced and unmarried people had a higher dementia risk.

When the researchers focused on the unmarried group, it did appear that being childless accounted for a good deal of the relationship with higher dementia risk. But that still leaves the question of why.

“Some of the explanation could be that if you have children, you stay more cognitively engaged,” Mr Strand says.

“For example, you have to deal with people and participate in activities that you wouldn’t otherwise have to.”

Social stimulation

Mr Strand says it may be that such mental and social stimulation may help thwart dementia to a degree.

He says people who are more cognitively engaged throughout life may have more ‘cognitive reserve’ – an ability to withstand more of the brain changes that mark the dementia process before symptoms appear.

The study was based on more than 8700 Norwegian adults whose marital status was tracked from age 44 to 68. The team then looked for correlations with participants’ likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia after age 70.

Mr Strand says the study is important because the implications could have a serious impact on the ageing population.

He says the researchers plan to dig deeper in the future to look at whether social inactivity, loneliness or general life satisfaction could help explain why marital status is tied to dementia risk.

 In the 2017 study, the research suggested part of this risk might be explained by poorer physical health among lifelong single people.

The widowed were 20 per cent more likely to develop dementia than married people, although the strength of this association was somewhat weakened when educational attainment was factored in. Bereavement is likely to boost stress levels, which have been associated with impaired nerve signalling and cognitive abilities, the researchers noted.

Healthier lifestyle

“Marriage may help both partners to have healthier lifestyles, including exercising more, eating a healthy diet, and smoking and drinking less, all of which have been associated with lower risk of dementia,” the researchers explained.

“Couples may also have more opportunities for social engagement than single people – a factor that has been linked to better health and lower dementia risk.”

Are you surprised at the findings? Why do you think married people seem to have a lower risk of dementia? We’d love to hear your theories in the comments section below.

Also read: Regular laxative use can increase dementia risk

YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.


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