Marriage may reduce the risk of dementia, study says

The results recently published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry indicate that long-standing "single" individuals and widows are at an increased risk of developing the disease, even though being single is not considered a health hazard as it once seemed to be.

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The results indicate that long-standing "single" individuals and widowers are at an increased risk of developing the disease, even though being single is not considered a health hazard as it once seemed to be.

The findings were based on 15 relevant studies that focused on the possible role of marital status on the risk of dementia, published until the end of 2016. These studies included over 800,000 participants from North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

Combined analysis of the data, after considering both age and sex, suggested that individuals without a lifelong partner had a 42% increased risk of developing dementia when compared with married people. The researchers attribute  part of this risk to poorer physical health among individuals without a lifelong partner.

However, according to the latest studies that involved participants born after 1927, the risk was only 24%, indicating a reduction over time, for which the reason remains unclear.   

The widowed had a 20% increased risk of developing the disease than married people. However, the risk decreased when educational attainment was factored in.

The researchers pointed out that bereavement possibly boosted stress levels, which are related to impaired nerve signaling as well as cognitive abilities. Such associations were not identified among those who had divorced their partners, even though this may partially be down to the smaller numbers of people of this status involved in the studies.

According to the researchers, the decreased risk among married people that persisted even after detailed analysis reflected "the robustness of the findings."

As the results were based on observational studies, firm conclusions on the cause and effect couldn’t be drawn. The researchers also pointed out several study limitations, including the design of a few studies and the lack of data on the duration of divorce or widowhood.

At the same time, they offered numerous explanations for the associations they had found. In their opinion, marriage might aid both the partners to have healthier lifestyles, including exercising more, taking healthy food, and drinking and smoking less, all of which have been linked with reduced dementia risk.

The team also suggested that couples may also get more opportunities for social engagement compared with single people—a factor that has been associated with improved health and reduced dementia risk.

According to Christopher Chen from the National University of Singapore and Vincent Mok from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the enduring problem is how to transform these observations into effective means of preventing dementia.

They explained that the discovery of potentially modifiable risk factors does not suggest easy prevention of dementia.

Ways of destigmatising dementia and producing dementia-friendly communities more accepting and embracing of the kinds of disruptions that dementia can produce should progress alongside biomedical and public health programmes"

Christopher Chen, Vincent Mok

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