In Sickness and Mental Health
Most couples promise to love each other in sickness and in health when reciting marriage vows. Now, simply saying those words may lead to better health. Numerous studies have extolled the benefits of marriage on overall morbidity and mortality, but a recent study reports that mental health may, in fact, be preserved, in married people.
More than 25 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for most of the cases. With an aging population, the number of dementia cases is expected to exceed 80 million by 2040. For this reason, uncovering the causes and potential treatments for dementia is critical and urgent. Many studies have linked lifestyle choices and improved cognitive function in older age, including advanced education, increased physical activity, and mentally stimulating occupations and hobbies. A strong social network is also linked to a decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline. Correspondingly, living as a couple is associated with improved health and longevity.
Now, research shows that people who are living with a partner at mid-life are at a significantly decreased risk of dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease, in later life. The newest study published in the British Medical Journal examined a population in Finland over a 21-year period. Overall, individuals living with a partner at 50 years old were less likely than those who were widowed, divorced, or separated to show cognitive decline 2 decades later. People who were single at mid-life and follow-up were 3 times as likely to show signs of dementia compared to those who were married or living with a partner. An earlier study of a French population showed similar results, plus an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease in individuals who had never been married.
Of course, relationships are not the only risk factor for dementia. Many factors, including age and genetics, influence cognitive function. However, studies linking psychosocial factors and dementia provide one more incentive to maintain an active, healthy social and intellectual life.
Since being part of a couple increases lifespan, “til death do you part” may be farther away than many couples realize. Luckily, being part of a couple protects mental health and preserves cognitive function, allowing couples to grow old gracefully together.
Hakansson, K., Rovio, S., Helkala, E., Vilska, A., Winblad, B., Soininen, H., Nissinen, A., Mohammed, A., & Kivipelto, M. (2009). Association between mid-life marital status and cognitive function in later life: population based cohort study BMJ, 339 (jul02 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b2462
Helmer C, Damon D, Letenneur L, et al. Marital status and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: a French population-based cohort study. Neurology. Dec 10 1999;53(9):1953-1958.
Manzoli, L., Villari, P., M Pirone, G., & Boccia, A. (2007). Marital status and mortality in the elderly: A systematic review and meta-analysis Social Science & Medicine, 64 (1), 77-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.08.031
Qiu C, Kivipelto M, von Strauss E. Epidemiology of Alzheimer’s disease: occurrence, determinants, and strategies toward intervention. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2009;11(2):111-128.
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