Can Marriage Prevent Dementia?

Can Marriage Prevent Dementia?

Every marriage will go through ups and downs. Whether you’ve been married for 5 years or 5 decades, there will be moments of pure joy shared with your beloved, bookended with moments of sheer annoyance. But the little ups and downs of day-to-day life often add up to something wonderful, something you want to hold onto as long as you can. Those who are in long-term marriages are well aware of the benefits of their union, but there might be added bonuses you didn’t expect.

Did you know that your brain health can actually be protected by marriage? Researchers in Norway have discovered that seniors who are in long-term marriages are less likely to develop dementia.

The study, published in the Journal of Aging and Health, looked at 8,700 participants. They tracked the marital status of these individuals as they aged from 44 to 68, and broke it down into several categories, including married for the entire study period, divorced and later remarried, single the entire time, or widowed at some point. The researchers then looked at the rate of dementia in those same individuals after the age of 70.

They found that only about 11% of long-term married individuals over the age of 70 were diagnosed with dementia, as opposed to between 12% - 14% of those who were divorced or single.

When you add in other factors, such as higher education levels and good lifestyle habits, the benefit of long-term marriage became even clearer. In fact, divorced and unmarried adults were at least 50% more likely to develop dementia later in life than those who were in long-term partnerships.1

Why Does Marriage Decrease Dementia Risk?

This isn’t the first time that a study has linked marriage with a decrease in cognitive decline, but it is another indication that long-term commitment is good for the brain. But why?

Though there is no clear factor as to why a long-term marriage positively impacts the brain, there are several reasons scientists theorize could lead to better health. Here are some of the potential reasons why a solid partnership throughout your lifetime can promote lower risk of dementia:

·        Treating health conditions. Having a partner around to remind you to go to your doctor’s appointment or to take your medications can be a lifesaver. And if you both have chronic conditions that require treatment or lifestyle changes, the “we’re in this together” mentality can help you achieve goals for weight loss, physical activity, medication adherence, and so much more.

·        A less sedentary life. If you live alone, it can be quite easy to develop a sedentary lifestyle, where sitting down in front of the television is the biggest event of the evening. But if you have a partner, it’s entirely possible that you live a less sedentary life. For instance, getting out for a date to the movies instead of watching a movie at home is a way many couples might incorporate more activity into their day-to-day life without even realizing the importance of it for mental and physical health.

·        Less social isolation. Being isolated from family and friends can lead to serious problems for anyone, but especially the elderly. According to the CDC, social isolation increases your odds of developing dementia by about 50%. And social isolation can have such an adverse effect on physical health that it heightens the risk of premature death to rival that of smoking or obesity.2 Having a spouse in the home can lead to less social isolation and loneliness, which can lead to better overall health.

·        Lower risk of depression. Social isolation and loneliness is strongly tied to depression, anxiety, and even suicide.3 Some research also suggests that being depressed at some point in your life can lead to a higher risk of dementia.4 While a marriage alone can’t lead to lower rates of depression, the presence of a supportive spouse can lessen the odds of developing it.

·        Better financial standing. Two incomes are usually better than one, and that includes two social security checks or two pensions. The more money flowing into the household, the more likely you are to have the things you need to live a healthier lifestyle. From having plenty of food in the home to having the means to pamper yourself from time to time, a better financial life often leads to better overall health.

·        Quitting bad habits. Smoking has been linked to countless health problems, including a higher risk of dementia. Other vices, such as drinking too much alcohol, have also been tied to higher rates of cognitive decline. A partner in the home can be your stalwart support if you choose to drop your vices and live a healthier life.

·        Consistent cognitive workouts. Higher educational attainment has long been known as a contributor to better cognitive health; but that is obviously not dependent upon marital status. What having a partner in the home can do, however, is keep those mental wheels turning. The cognitive stimulation that can come from the pursuit of higher learning can also come from engaging in mentally stimulating discussions with a spouse.

There’s also a less tangible point to ponder: When you have a spouse in the home with you, it’s much more likely that they can tell if something is “off” about you. And when someone knows you so well, that sixth sense of something being wrong can lead them to encourage a doctor’s visit, which means you could catch a problem before it becomes worse.

When it comes to the brain, catching problems early can make an enormous difference. Imagine that you suffer a bad fall and hit your head on something. Traumatic brain injury can result from even what seems to be a “mild” bump on the head. That’s why a medical alert device for seniors is a great idea for both you and your spouse. In fact, Alert1 offers discount pricing to couples living in the same home.

Quick action is vitally important when dealing with a head injury, especially when you consider that a head injury could lead to a greater risk of dementia later on.5

Does Having Children Impact Dementia Risk?

Though the study looked at marriage specifically, the question of parental status was also addressed. The study found that those who were unmarried but had children tended to see a lower rate of dementia than those who did not have children. Many of the same arguments for marriage serving as a “buffer” against dementia could also hold true for children of seniors, as they could provide the opportunity for a less sedentary lifestyle, a double-check for physical health issues and taking medications on time, and even someone to talk with on a regular basis who can provide a cognitive workout as well as lessen the odds of social isolation. 

Just how significant was the finding concerning children? The study found that having children decreased the risk of dementia by a whopping 60% among unmarried individuals.

One of the biggest reasons why children might play a role in a lower risk of dementia is something called “cognitive reserve.”

When someone is mentally active throughout their life, they tend to build up a cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the ability of the brain to handle problems, solve challenges, remain agile in thought, and even resist the injuries that can occur as a result of aging, stroke, or even trauma from a head wound during a fall.

Cognitive reserve was first theorized in the 1980s, when researchers discovered that some individuals who had no signs of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia did show the tell-tale signs of brain changes when they were autopsied. These elderly individuals showed no signs of memory loss or any other dementia symptoms throughout their life, but changes in the brain had obviously occurred. Scientists concluded that mental resilience – or cognitive reserve – was the reason why they were able to function quite normally even though their brains were no longer normal at all.6

What leads to cognitive reserve? Though it’s not clear exactly what can provide this superpower for every individual, scientists theorize that keeping active throughout life can help. Those who have children tend to boost their brainpower through their day-to-day life, as children keep you busy! From helping with homework to teaching them to drive to engaging with them later in life as an adult, there are many ways that children contribute to our cognitive well-being.

A Happy Marriage Makes a Difference

While marriage can reduce the risk of dementia, the type of marriage you’re in plays a significant role. A happy marriage can yield positive results, but a bad marriage can do just the opposite. According to the National Institute of Health, a poor-quality marriage is more likely to result in depression and other negative mental health effects, and marital conflict can lead to functional impairment.

Studies that focused on men have found that those who had a positive marital experience had a slower rate of cognitive decline later in life, while those who had a negative experience saw a faster rate. However, studies have also found that older men who can improve their marital relationship may actually be able to protect their brains from cognitive decline later in life.

What does that mean? A long-term marriage that is on shaky ground might not impart the benefits that a good one can, so working on marital problems could be a good idea – not just for your mental health and emotional wellness, but for better enjoyment of your golden years.

Keeping Your Brain Healthy and Sharp

No matter your marital status, keeping your brain sharp is incredibly important. Playing cognitive puzzles and games, such as crosswords or Sudoku, is a great way to do that. Staying engaged with others, getting out for ample exercise, and eating brain-healthy foods can also provide you with a strong foundation for cognitive ability later in life.

It’s also important to protect your physical health, as that can directly affect your cognitive ability. For instance, the decreased blood flow that can result from some cardiovascular problems can lead to issues with the brain not getting the energy it needs. Strokes, heart attacks, and traumatic brain injury are just a few of the things that can lead to serious problems for your brain.

Protecting yourself against the dire outcomes of brain injury, severe falls, and other accidents is important. Getting help on the way as soon as a fall happens is a good way to stay proactive about your health, so having medical alert technology at your fingertips is always an excellent idea.

That’s especially true if you have a medical alert system with fall detection. This unique button alarm can reach out automatically to a monitoring center as soon as a fall happens, without your even needing to press the SOS button. This matters a great deal because the longer you wait to get help, the less favorable your outcome might be. When it comes to dementia risk, why take any chances at all? Enlist the help of Alert1 Medical Alerts to ensure you have the help you need literally at your fingertips – for you and for your spouse.