Marriage may protect against dementia

Longtime marriage can give you more than love, care and companionship, but also protect you from dementia, according to a new study.

Maria Zavialova

Is marriage a recipe for avoiding dementia? Yes, a new study suggests.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a progressive neurodegenerative syndrome that affects a significant part of the elderly population. According to global estimates, 55 million people currently suffer from dementia. And according to WHO forecasts, this number is expected to rise to 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050 due to population aging. 

There are currently no effective pharmacological treatments for dementia. Therefore, efforts to prevent or delay dementia by reducing medical and social risk factors have become a major area of research.

Purpose and methods of the study

Previous researches suggest that getting married later in life protects against dementia. In the same time, being alone in old age increases the risk of developing it. This study examined marital status trajectories in midlife and their association with dementia and mild cognitive impairment at age 70 and older in a large population-based sample from Norway.

Marriage has been reported to be associated with reduced dementia risk in numerous studies. And our results add to this evidence. Figuring out the reasons is important – especially considering changing demographics and social norms. The elderly population is growing, meaning more people are at risk of dementia. Meanwhile, more people are getting divorced or saying no to marriage altogether.

Researcher Bjorn Heine Strand, a senior scientist with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, in Oslo for HealthDay

The findings, published in the Journal of Aging and Health, are based on data from more than 8,700 Norwegian adults whose marital status was tracked between the ages of 44 and 68. Next, Strand’s team looked for correlations with the likelihood of diagnosing dementia in participants after the age of 70.

The researchers evaluated relative risk indicators and used mediation analysis. These included education, number of children, smoking, hypertension, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, mental distress, and lack of close friends in middle age.

Results: How marriage reduces the risk of developing dementia

Data confirm that staying married in middle age is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. Plus, divorced people account for a significant proportion of dementia cases.

The figures are as follows: 11% of married people over 70 were diagnosed with dementia, compared to 12-14% of their divorced or single peers. Another 35% of them developed mild cognitive impairment – problems with memory and thinking that can progress to dementia.

The researchers weighed other factors that may influence the risk of developing dementia, including education and lifestyle. However, long-term marriage was still associated with a protective effect. For example, divorced and unmarried adults were 50%-73% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

Physical health problems, such as heart disease, can contribute to the development of dementia. Likewise, depression, low levels of education, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. However, none of these factors seem to fully explain why divorced and unmarried people are at higher risk of developing dementia.

Not just marriage: caring for children also has an impact on dementia development

When researchers focused on a group of unmarried people, they found that childlessness was significantly associated with an increased risk of dementia.

Part of the reason for this is that if you have children, you stay more cognitively engaged. For example, you have to socialize with people and participate in activities that you would not otherwise have to do.

Researcher Bjorn Heine Strand

He noted that there is a theory that such mental and social stimulation – as well as formal education – can help prevent dementia to some extent. People who are more cognitively active throughout their lives may have a greater “cognitive reserve”. This is the ability to withstand more of the brain changes that characterize the process of dementia before symptoms appear.

Previous studies have proven the effectiveness of aerobic exercise in restoring the aging brain. So let’s add strong and quality relationships to the list of life goals.

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