By Amruth Chinnappa
A team of researchers from the University College London (UCL) reported that marriage reduces the risk of dementia. The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry published the study which revealed that people who have remained single all their lives were 42 percent more likely to get dementia while those whose partners are deceased faced a 20 percent risk.
What is dementia?
Dementia comes from a Latin word meaning ‘out of one’s mind’, the degenerative brain condition affects 47 million people globally with 10 million additional cases every year and is incurable. This makes dementia the 7th leading cause of death in the world according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). It is not a disease, rather a syndrome characterised by symptoms such as reduced memory and comprehension.
The effects of dementia are caused by damage to brain cells which interferes with internal communication in the brain. The location of the brain damage determines the specific type of dementia. Up to 80 percent of cases are a result of Alzheimer’s, a disease which damages the hippocampus of the central nervous system (CNS). This part of the brain handles memory, hence the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s.
The degeneration of the brain is an unstoppable process but some of the associated symptoms can be reduced. These are controlled to a certain extent by modifiable risk parameters such as diet, physical activity, and smoking. The University College London conducted another study on 1.5 million people to test the effects of these factors. This study found that a high body mass index (BMI) made people more susceptible to dementia. The journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia published the study and correlated the effect of a bad lifestyle and obesity to nerve degeneration and reduced blood flow to the brain.
How researchers made the discovery
The UCL researchers examined data from 15 studies which involved 812,047 people from across the United States, Asia, and Brazil. The results found that lifelong singles were at a 40 percent higher risk of dementia compared to the married populace. The researchers propose that this difference is caused by a difference in lifestyle between married people and singles. A married person has better emotional support and a more stable life resulting in lower stress levels and better health. In the case of windows and widowers, the death of a partner is thought to cause high levels of duress and thus render the surviving partner prone to dementia.
However, this proposed difference in lifestyle between singles and married people seems to be decreasing as an increasing number of singles are opting for healthier lifestyles on their own. The study found that the risk of dementia associated with being single has come down from 40% as in the early 20th century to about 24 percent in more recent times. Thus, the study does not prove a direct connection between marriage and a reduced risk of dementia.
The answer is improved socialisation
Bone density tests have revealed that the arm bones of prehistoric women were stronger than those of Olympic rowers today while advanced medical techniques and improved health care have doubled the average life expectancy the last hundred years. Yet, such improvements do not solve the problems posed by lifestyle diseases. UCL’s studies of dementia demonstrate the importance of an active social environment alongside physical activities. The National University of Singapore and Chinese University of Hong Kong have conducted a further study that supports UCL’s findings, reporting that sexual activity improves cognition at a later age.
The World Health Organisation predicts that the number of dementia patients will triple by the year 2050. This threat calls for more programs to be developed that will tackle problems of limited social interaction in later life. The Alzheimer’s Association has already planned a two-year $20 million clinical trial named the US POINTER 2018. This study will subject a group of high-risk adults to a set of different lifestyle experiences while their susceptibility to developing dementia is monitored. The loss of a limb can be endured better than the loss of the mind, as this is what gives life its greatest value. Initiatives such as the Alzheimer’s Association trials are the necessary response to the threat of dementia.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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