Lasting Marriage May Help Ward Off Dementia

Unmarried people fare better with kids, researchers say
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 22, 2023 4:24 PM CDT
Lasting Marriage May Help Ward Off Dementia
Continuously married individuals had the lowest risk of dementia in large study.   (Getty Images/Jcomp)

A lasting marriage appears to come with benefits for the brain, according to new research that suggests a continuous marriage reduces one's risk of dementia in later life. Individuals who are single or divorced are at higher risk of the condition, according to the study published late last year in the Journal of Aging and Health. With access to 150,000 health records, researchers initially looked for links between dementia diagnoses and health factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, and close friendships. "But they didn't explain anything," Asta Håberg, a doctor and researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, says in a release.

The breakthrough came in comparing marital status among individuals aged 44 to 68 over a 24-year period with clinical diagnoses of dementia or mild cognitive impairment after age 70. Researchers found the lowest incidence among those who were continuously married. This "indicates that being married and a lower risk of dementia are linked, but we don't know why," says Håberg. One theory is that "the partner represents a security that provides a buffer," says study co-author Vegard Skirbekk of NIPH. "You become more cognitively active, you cope better with adversity, and are less subject to stress." Marriage also presumably prevents social isolation, which is linked to increased risk of dementia, Skirbekk tells NTB.

Though single or divorced individuals (including cohabitating couples, who made up less than 1% of the group) were at higher risk, those with children had a 60% reduced risk compared to other unmarried people. That might be because parenting requires cognitive engagement and builds more connections in the brain "so that it possibly works better," Håberg says. There are still plenty of unknowns. It could be that "people who have a lower probability of developing dementia also have a higher probability of finding a partner and having children," Håberg says. Or it could be that certain conditions, like education and marriage, "build up a kind of cognitive reserve" to ward off or delay dementia. (Marriage has also been linked to stroke survival.)

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