Marriage may protect you from dementia – study

Science and Health

Dementia is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects millions of people worldwide, mostly those aged 70 and above, but can being married protect you from it? A recent study suggests that may be the case.

The condition of dementia can lead to a deterioration of cognitive function; in other words, it chips away at the ability to process thought. 

A Norwegian peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Aging and Health in early November 2022 posited based on other research that marital status can be a determining factor in whether or not someone develops dementia later in life. 

Researchers looked at data from a representative population sample, which included individuals who received a clinical diagnosis of dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is a cognitive diagnosis in older adults who do not fulfill the criteria for dementia. MCI may develop into dementia over time, but many MCI patients do not develop any additional cognitive issues and some return to normal cognition. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 55 million people currently live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year.

Dementia can be the result of a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain, per the WHO, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60-70% of cases.

An illustration of a bride and groom during a Civil marriage outside the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, December 9, 2020. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

Analyzing the data based on marital status

The population sample was separated into six categories based on their marital status between ages 44 and 68: unmarried, continuously divorced, intermittently divorced, widowed, continuously married and intermittently married.

Statuses were defined as continuous if an individual maintained the status throughout the 24-year period. In other words, if an individual was divorced before age 44 and never remarried, they are considered “continuously divorced,” and likewise for those married before age 44 and never divorced.

Those whose marital status changed at any point in those 24 years fall into the “intermittent” category. If they went from married to divorced, they are intermittently divorced. If they were divorced or unmarried and became married, they are in the “intermittently married” category. 

Analyses were then adjusted to account for education, number of children, smoking, hypertension, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, mental distress and having no close friends in midlife. 

In total, 11.6% of the participants were diagnosed with dementia and 35.3% with MCI. Instances of dementia diagnoses were lowest, 11.2%, among those continuously married.

In general, marital trajectory was determined to not be as directly connected to MCI as it is to dementia.

Researchers concluded that staying married between ages 40-70 is associated with a lower risk of dementia in old age, and that divorced individuals account for a substantial percentage of dementia cases.