The research is clear that staying socially engaged throughout middle age and beyond helps protect your memory against Alzheimer’s disease. But what about getting married and having a family?
Being married continuously from mid-life onwards appears to save your memory and reduce your chances of developing dementia in old age. On the flip side, divorced or single people have the highest incidence of dementia. That’s the finding of a recent large study, anyway. The takeaway seems clear. To maintain a healthy brain, get married and stay married.
And yet the waters are muddied by another discovery. Researchers report that having kids reduces your risk of dementia whether you’re married or not!
Let’s take a closer look…
A series of studies support the view that marriage in later life reduces the risk of dementia. However, the number of participants in these studies was mostly small and the way they were conducted leaves room for doubt.
Scientists decided they needed a much larger, more robust investigation, so a research group from Norway took up the challenge.
The investigators made use of data from 8,706 Norwegian men and women who were part of a large, ongoing survey. They tracked marital status of the participants for 24 years when they were between the ages of 44 and 68. Individuals who consistently maintained the same marital status for the whole 24-year period were put into one of four groups: unmarried, married, divorced and/or separated, or widowed.
Another two groups were categorized as “intermittent” if they married but then divorced and/or separated or divorced and then remarried.
The research team then looked for a diagnosis of clinical dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) among the six groups after participants reached the age of 70, adjusting the findings to take into account factors that impact the risk of dementia.
The confounding factors were education, number of children, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, mental distress, and having no close friends in midlife.
The results showed the prevalence of dementia was highest among single folks.
Dementia Risk Increased 73 Percent In Singles
The results showed that the married group had the lowest rates of dementia when compared to the unmarried group. Meanwhile, those singles had the highest risk of dementia at 73 percent. Unmarried people also had a 43 percent higher risk of MCI.
Compared to those married throughout, the risk of dementia also rose by 66 percent for the continually divorced or separated and 50 percent for those who were married but then later divorced.
The researchers concluded by writing: “Our data confirm that staying married in midlife is associated with a lower risk of dementia and that divorced people account for a substantial share of dementia cases.”
But perhaps most interesting, of all the confounding factors, only one was meaningful when it came to predicting dementia risk. I’m talking about having children.
Parenthood Reduced Dementia Risk 60 Percent
When it came to having children, parenthood reduced the risk of dementia both among the married and the unmarried. In fact, having children reduced the risk of dementia by a whopping 60 percent among the unmarried.
What explains these results? There’s no definitive answer to this question but the study authors put forward some suggestions.
If the risk of dementia is slashed in unmarried people with children does the protective effect come from having been married for from having children?
The short answer is no one knows. But one thing is clear. Remaining single or getting divorced is a brain hazard.
The Importance Of Social Contact
Of all the cases of dementia in the study, six percent could be attributed to being unmarried in midlife. This is interesting since researchers already estimate that about 3.5 percent of dementia cases are attributable to social isolation.
Marriage provides social contact in abundance and married people may be more likely to socially interact than single people. Divorce can cause social and financial stress and involve conflict and risky behaviors such as excessive drinking.
Having a spouse can also influence several health behaviors relevant for later-life cognition such as being less likely to engage in alcohol abuse, smoking, physical inactivity, and poor dietary choices. The positive effect of marriage on the risk of dementia may also be driven by better cardiovascular health among those who are married relative to those who are not married based on several studies.
Marriage also affects mental health…
Married adults are less distressed (and less stressed!) than unmarried adults. Marriage also reduces depressive symptoms for both men and women, whereas being divorced has the opposite effect.
First author Vegard Skirbekk said that “being married can have an influence on risk factors. You become more cognitively active, you cope better with adversity and are less subject to stress. The partner represents a security that provides a buffer.”
Builds Cognitive Reserve
As for the effect of having children, that’s a tricky one because this hasn’t received much attention in relation to dementia until now.
However, the researchers speculated by writing: “Children may provide a sense of meaning, purpose in life, and encourage protective health behaviors (e.g., quitting smoking, physical exercise, regular check-ups) that, in turn, reduce the risk for dementia.”
Another member of the research team, Dr. Asta Håberg, added: “Some people have theorized that if you have children, you stay more cognitively engaged. For example, you have to deal with people and participate in activities that you wouldn’t otherwise have to. This stimulates your brain so that it possibly works better. That way you build up a kind of cognitive reserve.”
Single Or Divorced? Don’t Worry
This study says nothing about the biological mechanisms behind dementia. There may be something intrinsic about being married that’s not possible to emulate in the unmarried, but this hasn’t been demonstrated in this or any other study.
As Dr. Skirbekk pointed out, marriage is just one of many influences that can lower the risk.
If you’re single or divorced the most important thing you can do is to remain socially engaged. Go out with friends, see a movie or a play. Join a book club, cooking club or fitness group. The possibilities are limitless.
Also remember to eat a healthy diet (avoiding sugar and processed food), exercise regularly, enjoy a healthy lifestyle, counter stress, perform activities that stimulate the brain, and find purpose in life. Carry these out and your brain will thank you, married or not.