Marriage is likely the single most important relationship a person will have in their adult life. And it turns out that getting married can have an effect on more than who share your bed with. According to a new study out of Michigan State University, marriage could have an impact on your cognitive health and lower your risk of dementia.
In the study, the researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study. They examined four different groups of unmarried people, including divorced or separated, widowed, never married and people who lived together but weren’t married. The people who were divorced showed the highest risk of dementia.
“We followed them for 14 years, and what we found is that all unmarried groups had a higher risk of developing dementia in the study period than their married counterparts,” Hui Liu, professor of sociology at Michigan State University and an author of the study, told Being Patient.
Importance of Marriage for Cognitive Health
This isn’t the first study to identify a link between marriage and dementia. One study found that people who were single their entire lives were more likely to develop dementia, while widowed people were 20 percent more likely to develop it.
And it’s not always just marriage that can have an impact on cognitive health — it’s close relationships in general. Another recent study found that a robust social calendar could significantly lower a person’s dementia risk.
On the flip side, loneliness has been linked to a variety of health issues. Those include high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression and cognitive decline, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
With 28 percent of older adults in the U.S. living alone, loneliness can be a risk factor for health problems for up to 13.8 million people nationwide. Research has also shown that loneliness can increase the risk of dementia by up to 40 percent. And it’s the type of loneliness that makes people feel socially isolated or out of place that has the biggest effect on health and cognitive decline.
Marriage Factors and Cognitive Health
But what exactly causes this lifelong commitment and relationship to preserve a person’s brain health? Liu says researchers still aren’t completely sure.
What they do know, however, is that it’s likely a combination of different factors. The first is economic.
“We found economic factors have an impact,” Liu said. “For example, married people [tend to be] financially better, as they have better access to pooled income from the couple. Also, the insurance from the employed spouse is another factor.”
Liu said this explains some of the difference, but not all. “Even after we control for [economic factors], we still see lower risk of dementia for married people,” she said.
Health behaviors, like choosing to be more physically active, eating well or going to the doctor more often, also explain part of it. But that’s still not all.
“[Another] possibility is married people have more social support and a larger social network from your spouse,” Liu said. “For example, your spouse has friends and family, so that increases your social network. Simply having a spouse is also important, and the daily communication that comes from that. Those are all factors that promote the health of married people.”
Quality of Relationships and Dementia
For Liu, however, the biggest answers may lie in the quality of relationships. She believes that the quality of a marriage and some of the more details in things like communication, history and intimacy may play a bigger role in the risk of dementia.
“Marriage is not just marital status, it’s a very complicated relationship,” Liu said. Her next research steps, she says, will be to examine how the quality of a marriage can impact dementia risk.
“We will study the whole marital history — how many times you divorced, how long you were divorced, widowed, when you got married the first time, the whole marital history — and whether it has an impact on your cognition and dementia risk,” Liu said. “And also the quality — I really think the quality of the relationship will have an impact on their cognitive health and dementia.”