The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Aging—With a Clear Mind

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

As the population of the developed West ages, public health authorities worry about a growing population of elderly men and women suffering from Alzheimer’s. A study out of Sweden and Finland, however, suggests that men and women in intact marriages enjoy a significant level of protection against this debilitating mental condition. Completed by scholars at Växjö University and Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Kuopio in Finland, this study clearly identifies marital status as a predictor of late-life cognitive health.

To assess the relationship between cognitive health and marital status, the researchers examined data collected from 2,000 randomly older men and women (ages 65 to 79) living in or near the Finnish cities of Kuopio and Joensuu. Statistical analysis clearly identifies an intact marriage as protection against Alzheimer’s: “There is a substantial and independent association between marital status in mid-life and cognitive function later in life,” report the researchers, “People without a partner had twice the risk of developing cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease compared with people living with a partner. The risk for cognitive impairment was even higher for those without a partner both at mid-life and later life.”

The Swedish and Finnish researchers calculate that “people without a partner had twice the risk of developing cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease compared with people living with a partner,” with an “even higher risk” manifesting itself for those without a partner both at “mid-life” (50s) and later life (later 60s and 70s). The researchers highlight a particularly elevated risk of Alzheimer’s among men or women who enter mid-life widowed or divorced and who remain single into old age: these individuals are three times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those who are married or cohabiting (this is Scandinavia, after all). The risk of developing Alzheimer’s appears especially pronounced for widows and widowers: men and women who are widows and widowers at midlife and in old age are almost eight times (Odds Ratio, 7.67) more likely to develop the condition than are married and cohabiting peers. The researchers note that the elevation of Alzheimer’s risk for both divorce and widowhood is statistically “significant for men and women, with slightly higher odds ratios for men.”

In explaining their findings, the researchers reason that “the decreased risk of cognitive impairment later in life might reflect the effects of a high level of social and intellectual stimulation inherent in a couple relationship.” However, they acknowledge that their theory does not explain why Alzheimer’s rates run somewhat lower among never-married men and women than they do among divorced peers, suggesting that “other factors are needed to explain [these] parts of the results.”

In America, where more and more men and women are entering middle and old age without the protection of an intact marriage, we can expect to see a growing number of people in the terrible mental fog caused by Alzheimer’s.

(Krister Håkansson et al., “Association Between Mid-life Marital Status and Cognitive Function in Later Life: Population Based Cohort Study,” British Medical Journal 339 [July 2, 2009]: b2462.)