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Why Marriage Is Linked to a Lower Risk of Dementia

From TIME - November 28, 2017

People who have never married or whose spouse has died are at increased risk of developing dementia compared to married people, according to a new review in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. But being single may not be as big a health hazard as it once was, the analysis finds.

The new paper looks at evidence from 15 previously published studies involving more than 800,000 people in Europe, North and South America and Asia. When the data was combined, and factors including age and gender were controlled for, researchers from University College London found that people who had never married were 42% more likely to develop dementia compared to married people, and widows and widowers were 20% more likely.

Other research has shown that people with spouses tend to be healthier than those without them. This may explain part of the findings, say the researchers: Married couples may motivate each other to exercise, eat healthfully, maintain social ties and smoke and drink lessall things that are associated with a lower risk for dementia.

Grieving the death of a spouse can also increase stress levels, they say, which may affect nerve signaling in the brain and impair cognitive abilities. The authors of an accompanying editorial, researchers from the National University of Singapore and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, also point out that sexual activity has been associated with better cognitive functioning and that unmarried or widowed people may have less sex.

The news isnt all bad for unmarried people, however. When the researchers looked at only the most recent studies, which included people born after 1927, the increased risk of dementia for single people was only 24%suggesting that being unmarried may not as great a risk factor as it was in previous decades.

Its possible, they write in the paper, that people who stay single may have cognitive traits that put them at higher risk for dementia, like difficulty communicating or an inability to be flexible in their thinkingespecially in the past, when marriage was the social norm. Remaining unmarried has become more common, they write, and it may be that single people born in the latter half of the 20th century have fewer unusual cognitive and personality characteristics.

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