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Your Marriage May Protect You From Dementia

Significant evidence suggests that married people are less likely to suffer dementia than widowed or single folks.

Single men and women have higher risks of developing dementia than married people, according to a new study. The researchers found that those who had been single their entire lives had a 42 percent increased risk of developing the mental disease, and that those who had been widowed faced a 20 percent higher risk. Divorcees, however, did not see a higher risk.

“There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link,” coauthor on the study Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK told The Guardian. “People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health.” 

There have been many studies in the past that have studied an individual’s increased risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia based on their lifestyles. Previous research has linked increased social interaction — something that comes with having a life-long, live-in partner — with better overall mental and physical health. Studies suggest that, the stronger a person’s social relationships are as they move into old age, the less likely they are to develop dementia. Other studies have shown that being married is associated with healthier lifestyle behaviors and that married people living with cancer have an improved chance of surviving long-term.

For this new study, Phipps and colleagues gathered information from medical databases and experts, as well as 15 studies with more than 800,000 participants. There were two “groups” in the study: adults who had been widowed, divorced, or single for most of their lives, and those who were married. Although they did not account for socialization with other family members, a general trend emerged—married and divorced people were less likely to suffer dementia.

Now, even the researchers themselves don’t think that the relationship between marriage and developing a debilitating cognitive disease is cause-and-effect. Rather, they cite what most other studies have in the past — married people are more active, more social, and have generally healthier lifestyles. All factors that help lower one’s risk for dementia.

The researchers aggregated information from studies already published rather than conducting original research, and the data on married and divorced couples pulled from a smaller sample than that of widowed and single people, so the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. The researchers also do not how long it takes for a single or widowed person’s risk to increase. Does 10 single years make you 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s? At what point is it a healthier choice for a widow to remarry? Such questions remain unresolved.

So, rather than providing revelatory information for doctors and researchers, this fairly diverse study was a confirmation of what many already knew—leading a healthy, active lifestyle into seniordom is likely to keep your brain healthy, too. What the information does do, however, is underscore that lack of social engagement with a spouse may be a risk factor unto itself. 

“The evidence continues to accumulate from multiple studies that eating well, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and pursuing mentally stimulating activity is good for everyone in terms of reducing risk of dementia,” Bryan Woodruff of the Mayo Clinic told CNN.