A new study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, found that people who remain single or lose their partners—to death, not divorce—are more likely to develop dementia. The study was a meta-analysis of 15 studies—covering more than 800,000 people from Europe, the Americas and Asia—that had data on dementia and marital status. The University College London-led study found that those who stay single for life have a 42% elevated risk—adjusted for age and sex—compared with married people while those widowed have a 20% increased risk. Divorcees, however, were didn’t show such elevated risks.
While people who are married are statistically financially better off than singletons—and finances have a bearing on many aspects of our lives that influence our physical and mental well-being—earlier research has found that married people were more likely to have consciously choose healthier lifestyles than unmarried ones. They are also more likely to be socially engaged, which means their mental well-being and cognitive reserve is better reinforced, thanks to their larger networks, than those who are single. The lower risk for married people was noticed in sensitivity analyses.
The study’s authors proffer that bereavement raises the risk of dementia given the effect of stress on neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the limbic system, governing emotions and long-term memory both. However, the researchers, given the limitations of the sub-studies their study analyses, couldn’t investigate the effect of the duration of being widowed. So, it isn’t yet clear whether those who lost their partners early are at a higher or lower risk for the disease. The studies main finding compares closely with other dementia risk factors, including poor education, hypertension and smoking. There is a possibility that unmarried or widowed people are more likely to adopt a lifestyle that has markedly higher presence of such risk factors. The research makes the case for investigating the contribution of social contact on health behaviours.