A good social life has long been known to shield against dementia. Last June, for example, Harvard researchers reported how mixing and mingling regularly in old age could ward off problems with memory. But studies in this area have all focused on socializing among the elderly.
The recent study, however, which was presented at the 2008 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Chicago, examined the effect of warm relationships in midlife on long-term dementia risk. It surveyed 2,000 men and women in Finland, first at age 50, and then 21 years later.
The researchers found that those who were living with a spouse or partner at age 50 were 50 percent less likely to develop memory problems at an elderly age than those living alone at midlife. Among people who lived alone their entire adult life, the risk for dementia doubled. And among those who were married but then divorced, and who stayed single in midlife, the risk tripled.
The riskiest group of all for developing Alzheimer’s was comprised of people who had lost their partner in earlier years and then continued to live as a widow or widower. These people had a six times greater chance of developing dementia than married individuals.
“This suggests two influencing factors – social and intellectual stimulation and trauma,” said lead author Krister Hakansson, a psychology researcher at Vaxjo University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “In practice, it shows how important it is to put resources into helping people who have undergone a crisis.”