Marriage, Divorce and Alzheimer’s Risk
By Tara Parker-Pope
Whether you are single or divorced in midlife appears to influence your risk of developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia as you age.
It's long been known that social relationships can decrease the risk of developing dementia. In June, Harvard researchers reported how active socializing in old age could delay memory problems.
But most research on social relationships and dementia measures the social life of the very old. The newest study, presented at the 2008 Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease in Chicago, focused on the effect relationships in midlife may have on long-term risk. It tracked 2,000 men and women in Finland beginning at the age of 50 and followed up with them 21 years later.
They found that people who were living with a spouse or a partner in midlife ran a 50 percent lower risk of developing dementia during their older years than people living alone. How long a person had been single and the reason they were single also affected risk. Living alone for your entire adult life doubled risk, but those who had been married and then divorced and remained single in midlife showed three times the risk.
Those at greatest risk of developing dementia were people who had lost their partner before middle age and then continued to live as a widow or widower. The study showed that these individuals had a six times greater chance of developing Alzheimer's than those who were married.
“This suggests two influencing factors — social and intellectual stimulation and trauma,” said lead author Krister Håkansson, a psychology researcher at Växjö University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in a statement. “In practice, it shows how important it is to put resources into helping people who have undergone a crisis.”
Dr. Håkansson said future research will focus on whether risk is influenced by the quality of the relationship or whether someone always intended to live a single life or not.