Study: Marriage may significantly reduce risk of dementia later in life

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 

Marriage may have significant health benefits later in life, according to one recently published study. Researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health found that individuals who are married have a lower risk of developing dementia.

The results of the HUNT study were published in the Journal of Aging and Health. According to the study results, the group that had the lowest incidence of dementia were individuals that were continuously married. In comparison, the highest incidence was found in divorced and single people.

In the study, researchers aimed to better understand how marital status, later-life dementia, and mild cognitive impairment are impacted by an aging population and “substantial changes in partnerships and living arrangements that have occurred over recent decades.” The team also looked at how marriage could be a potential mediator in decreasing the risk of dementia because it “provides one of the most important sources of social contact and support in adulthood.”

The researchers looked at a mix of Norwegian surveys and clinical data to identify different types of marital status in approximately 150,000 people living in Nord-Trøndelag. The team evaluated marital status over a 24-year period in individuals aged 44 to 68 and then analyzed how different marriage types correlated to a clinical diagnosis of dementia or mild cognitive impairment after the age of 70.

The team also compared the incidence of dementia against other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, psychological problems, number of children, and social risk factors.

Dr. Asta Håberg, a physician at St. Olav’s Hospital and a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology explained that the cause of dementia is still unclear and the team is not sure why marriage correlates with a reduced risk for dementia.

However, “one theory has been that people who are married live healthier lives and that this explains differences in the risk of various diseases. In this survey, we found no support for health differences between married and unmarried people explaining the difference in dementia risk.”

Dr. Vegard Skirbekk at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and lead author of the study said “being married can have an influence on risk factors for dementia.”


The researchers also found that having children significantly reduced the risk of dementia by 60% among the unmarried people in the study. Some research indicates that having children may help with cognition and prevent social isolation.

Håberg explains that having children ensures that “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.”

The term cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s resilience against cognitive decline. Experts suggest that this is developed through lifelong learning and is a reflection of the brain’s ability to overcome and cope with obstacles.

More research needs to be done, however, Skirbekk believes that genetic connections could be another key to better understanding dementia. He said, “We know that certain genes increase the risk of dementia, but people with these genes can still live to be 90 years old without experiencing cognitive problems.”

“We’ve dreamt of finding a medicine for dementia for a long time, but we haven’t yet succeeded. So we’re looking at social determinants. What can society do to reduce the risk?” Håberg said.