New research suggests that married people are less likely to experience dementia as they age. On the other hand, divorcees are about twice as likely as married people to develop dementia, the study indicates, with divorced men showing a greater disadvantage than divorced women.
“This research is important because the number of unmarried older adults in the United States continues to grow, as people live longer and their marital histories become more complex. Marital status is an important but overlooked social risk/protective factor for dementia,”
says Michigan State University sociology professor Hui Liu.
Dementia Risk For Cohabiters
Liu and her fellow researchers analyzed nationally representative data from the Health and Retirement Study, from 2000 to 2014. The sample included more than 15,000 respondents ages 52 and older in 2000, measuring their cognitive function every two years, in person or via telephone.
The researchers also found differing economic resources only partly account for higher dementia risk among divorced, widowed, and never-married respondents, but couldn’t account for higher risk in cohabiters. In addition, health-related factors, such as behaviors and chronic conditions, slightly influenced risk among the divorced and married, but didn’t seem to affect other marital statuses.
“These findings will be helpful for health policy makers and practitioners who seek to better identify vulnerable populations and to design effective intervention strategies to reduce dementia risk,”
Positive Aging Mindset
A 2018 study could help explain the results. It found that people who gain positive beliefs about aging from the culture around them are less likely to develop dementia, new research suggests.
It may make sense to assume that married people would have more a positive view about aging. At least for those in happy marriages.
Researchers found this protective effect for all participants, as well as among those carrying a gene that puts them at higher risk of developing dementia.
Researchers found that older people with positive age beliefs who carry one of the strongest risk factors for developing dementia — the ε4 variant of the APOE gene — were nearly 50 percent less likely to develop the disease than their peers who held negative age beliefs.
“We found that positive age beliefs can reduce the risk of one of the most established genetic risk factors of dementia. This makes a case for implementing a public health campaign against ageism, which is a source of negative age beliefs,”
said lead author Becca Levy, professor of public health and of psychology.
Levy and coauthors, Martin Slade and Robert Pietrzak from Yale School of Medicine, and Luigi Ferrucci, scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, studied a group of 4,765 people, with an average age of 72 years, who were free of dementia at the start of the study.
Twenty-six percent of the participants in the study were carriers of APOE ε4. The researchers controlled for factors including age and health of the participants.
The Michigan State University study comes at a time when 5.8 million people in the US are living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, costing $290 billion, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Hui Liu, Zhenmei Zhang, Seung-won Choi, Kenneth M Langa, Marital Status and Dementia: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, , gbz087, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbz087  Levy BR, Slade MD, Pietrzak RH, Ferrucci L (2018) Positive age beliefs protect against dementia even among elders with high-risk gene. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0191004. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191004