Researchers, predominantly from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, looked at the marital status of adults aged 44 through 68, and whether those adults developed dementia after the age of 70. The study utilized data from 150,000 Norwegians who granted consent for their health information to be used for research. Results indicated adults who remained married during those years of life saw the lowest occurrence of dementia.
Consistent with those results, the data also showed adults who were unmarried and divorced saw the highest rate of dementia. Vegard Skirbekk at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH/FHI), and an author of the study, said, “Being married can have an influence on risk factors for dementia.”
The causes of dementia are still unknown, and researchers have found a number of factors that can influence a person’s risk of developing the disease. Such factors were necessarily accounted for in this study.
At the study’s conclusion, authors “estimate that, had all participants been continuously married (and shared the same underlying somatic and mental health plus social characteristics of those who marry), 6% of the dementia cases in our study would not have occurred. This is a considerable reduction and is equivalent to the proportion of dementia cases accounted for by smoking and obesity combined, as reported by the Lancet dementia commission in 2020.”
It was found that having children also lowers the risk of developing dementia. Of the unmarried people analyzed, those who had children saw a 60% decreased risk of dementia.
Asta Håberg, a doctor at St. Olav’s Hospital and professor at NTNU, as well as a researcher at NIPH/FHI, commented on the study’s findings as they pertained to having children.
“Some people have theorized that if you have children, you stay more cognitively engaged. For example, you have to deal with people and participate in activities that you wouldn’t otherwise have to. This stimulates your brain so that it possibly works better. That way you build up a kind of cognitive reserve,” Håberg said.
“Cognitive reserves” are not physically observable in the brain, however scientists understand that there are many things that can build up reserves, which work to prevent dementia. Håberg notes that education is another factor that builds up cognitive reserves.
The results of the study are a part of the research project REFAWOR (Cognitive reserve work and family), which is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The project seeks to study the relationship between lifestyle and developing cognitive diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia, amidst the pressing reality of population aging in the decades to come.
It is still unknown what causes this disease that leads to a decline in memory and cognitive function. However, the results of the study lead scientists down more avenues of investigation in order to better understand dementia and how to prevent it.
Håberg sees this study as an exciting opportunity to further investigate the effects that having children has on dementia. At the same time, Skirbekk recognizes further opportunities in understanding the role genetics play in developing dementia. He says that “certain genes increase the risk of dementia,” but it has been observed that people with those genes may never develop cognitive diseases.
The study does not address the biology behind dementia, Skirbekk readily admits. However, “it shows that being married can have an influence on risk factors. You become more cognitively active, you cope better with adversity and are less subject to stress. The partner represents a security that provides a buffer.”