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Could marriage be key to staying dementia free?

By
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks
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28th November 2017 – Staying single throughout life, or being widowed, increases the risk of developing dementia, a study has found.

Conversely, marriage may lower the risk of the disease, researchers say.

The authors of the study, published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, say promoting education and physical health in unmarried people could help prevent cases of dementia.

There should also be a focus on getting people engaged socially, they say.

The findings are based on an analysis of 15 studies which investigated the role of marital status on dementia risk. Collectively, these accounted for 812,047 people from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

Physical health

Overall, the study found that compared with people who were married, those who stayed single throughout their lives were 42% more likely to develop dementia after age and sex were taken into account.

Part of this extra risk might be explained by poorer physical health among lifelong singletons, according to the research team led by University College London.

Some evidence was found to show that widowed people were more likely to develop dementia than married people. Bereavement boosts stress levels, which may impair signalling between nerves and cognitive abilities, they say.

No link is reported between dementia and divorced people, possibly because there were not enough people in this category to draw firm conclusions.

Keeping healthy together

The researchers ask why marriage seems to have a protective effect. Married couples might help each other live healthier lifestyles, they suggest. This could lead to married people drinking and smoking less, taking more exercise, and eating more healthily – all factors that can have a bearing on the risk of dementia.

Being a 'couple' might make you more social and outgoing – a factor that has been linked to a lower dementia risk as well as better overall health in general.

"Our findings, from large populations, across numerous countries and time periods are the strongest evidence yet that married people are less likely to develop dementia," the authors write.

Rising number of cases

In 2013, there were 815,827 people with dementia in the UK. Currently there’s an estimated 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025, and to over 2 million by 2051. 

The term 'dementia' covers several conditions of which Alzheimer's disease is the most common.

Reaction

We asked 2 leading dementia charities to comment on the latest study.

Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, says in an emailed comment: "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. People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health.

"Spouses may help to encourage healthy habits, look out for their partner's health and provide important social support."

Dr James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society, says: "As this research combines evidence from 15 different studies, we can be more confident in the conclusion that married people, on average, have a reduced risk of dementia compared to those who are single.

"These studies can’t tell us what it is about married life that is important for brain health, but the analysis hints that poorer physical health among those who remain single is partly responsible. The daily social contact that inevitably comes with marriage may also play a role, but more research is needed to confirm this is the case."

Reviewed on November 29, 2017

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