AD experts have known for some time that single people are at higher risk for cognitive decline than are people who live with a partner or spouse. But the reason you are single may further affect AD risk.
Unmarried people are at twice the risk of developing Alzheimer's as their married counterparts, according to a 21-year Swedish research study of more than 1,400 people. Study subjects who lived with a partner in midlife were less likely to be cognitively impaired than all the others, including those who were widowed, single, divorced, or separated.
Those who were living with a partner at midlife also had a 50 percent lower risk of developing dementia in late life than did those who lived alone. This was true even after the researchers adjusted their figures to take into account factors such as weight, physical activity, and education.
Just reading a daily newspaper could help ward off dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Cognitively active seniors who read, play cards or board games, and do home repairs or engage in other stimulating mental activities were 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's than were cognitively inactive people, according to researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
By contrast, people who stayed single their whole lives had a doubled risk of dementia. Those who were divorced from midlife onward were at triple the normal risk for dementia. Subjects who were widowed before midlife and remained single had more than a six-fold risk of developing Alzheimer's than did their married counterparts.
Marriage provides social and intellectual stimulation, both of which appear to protect cognitive health, study author Krister Hakansson of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm told fellow researchers at the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease (ICAD 2008) in Chicago. “Living in a couple relationship is normally one of the most intense forms of social and intellectual stimulation. It means that you are confronted with other ideas, perspectives, and needs. You have to compromise, make decisions, and solve problems together with someone else, which is more complicated and challenging. It is probably easier to get stuck in your own habits and routines if you live by yourself.”
Are some leisure activities more protective than others?
A study of 800 men and women ages 75 and older showed that those who were physically, socially, and mentally active had a lower risk for developing dementia than did the sedentary seniors in the group. Those who combined different activities — walking and talking with a friend, for example — did even better.