Life with a partner minimizes Alzheimer’s risk

August 4, 2008

Men and women living with a partner in mid-life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of age-related dementia, according to researchers presenting their study to colleagues at the 2008 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease, the largest conference based on the disease in the world.

Krister Hakansson, a psychology researcher at the Vaxjo University and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, reviewed the data gleaned from a study conducted in Finland that involved 2,000 people at or near the age of 50 at the beginning of the study. Each study participant was assessed for any signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
The participants were assessed again 21 years later, a factor that makes this study unique. Most studies of a similar nature involve elderly people whereas this particular study began studying individuals at mid-life. Their assessments around the age of 50 was then compared to their assessments at about age 71.
Previous studies have proven that an active lifestyle that includes a spouse or life partner is generally more socially and intellectually stimulating than a solitary lifestyle. It has also been shown that social and intellectual stimulation into the late stages of life reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
The Hakansson study shows that people with a spouse or partner in mid-life are 50% less likely to develop age-related dementia than people alone in mid-life. People living alone their entire adult lives were twice as likely to develop dementia than people living with a spouse or partner. When study participants divorced in mid-life and remained single afterward, the risk of dementia was three times greater than partnered study participants.
Death of a spouse or partner before middle age seemed to have the most serious consequences where Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are concerned. Widows and widowers who remained single after losing a spouse before mid-life were at the greatest risk of developing dementia, with their risk being six time that of partnered couples.
Hakansson says his study shows the value of investing resources to help people through times of crisis. He feels the benefits far outweigh the investment, especially when considering the very high cost of caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Two questions that remain unanswered but which intrigue Hakansson nevertheless are: 1) does the level of happiness in the relationship affect the later development of dementia, and 2) is dementia still a threat when someone remains forever single by his or her own choice.
(Source: Karolinska Institutet)