September 10, 2009
Living with a partner at midlife may lower the risk for Alzheimer's disease later in life, a new study shows. The findings add to a growing body of evidence that staying socially connected is vital for a healthy and intact brain late in life.
Several studies have shown that lifestyle factors may help to ward off cognitive decline later in life. Education, regular exercise and activity, a mentally challenging job and intellectual activities that might include regularly doing crossword puzzles and word games, have been linked to a sharp memory. Being married and having lots of friends has also been linked to keeping the mind sharp.
In the current study, Scandinavian researchers looked at about 1,500 men and women from Finland at midlife, then again some 20 years later. They found that those who were living with a partner at midlife, around age 50, were least likely to show memory and thinking problems when they were in their late 60s or 70s.
Men and women who were widowed or divorced at midlife and who remained so as seniors were the most likely to have be diagnosed with a condition like Alzheimer's late in life. The risk was especially high for those who had been widowed and who carried the APOE-E4 gene, a gene that increases the odds of developing Alzheimer's. Those who were single at midlife were also at increased risk of developing memory problems as seniors compared to those who had been married or partnered in their middle years.
The findings appeared in the British medical journal BMJ. In an editorial that accompanied the findings, a doctor suggests that his colleagues in primary care practice might target unmarried and especially widowed people and encourage them "to increase their social engagements" as a means of possible warding off Alzheimer's disease.
The research is consistent with other evidence showing that staying socially connected with spouses, family and friends helps to preserve memory and keep the brain young. Marriage and partnership is thought to provide social as well as intellectual stimulation that may help to keep the brain working well into old age. The researchers did not look at such factors as the quality of the marriage or the effects of children on outcome. But, they plan to continue their research into this provocative area.
Social interaction may be good for those who care for a loved one with Alzheimer's, too. Dr. Mary Mittelman and colleagues at New York University have shown that maintaining a close network of family and friends who can be called on for emotional support may be critical for easing the stress of caregiving.
Krister Hakansson, Suvi Rovio, Eeva-Liisa Helkala, et al: "Association Between Mid-Life Marital Status and Cognitive Function in Later Life: Population Based Cohort Study." BMJ 2009: online edition; 339:b2464 doi10.1136/bmj.b2462.