Widowhood May Delay Dementia in Some Seniors, Study Finds07/14/14
MONDAY, July 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Losing a spouse may be
linked to multiple health issues, but dementia isn't one of them,
according to a new study.
For certain seniors, widowhood may even delay dementia, the
"For those who had a mild memory problem, losing the spouse was associated with a later age of developing full-blown dementia compared to those who stayed married," said study researcher Dr. Bryan Woodruff.
Woodruff, an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic
in Scottsdale, Ariz., can only speculate on the reasons for this
Widowed men and women may get more outside support and
attention, he said. "It may be that social support, that network
trumps the widowhood effects we see in other conditions," he said.
"We don't know that for sure."
The difference in brain functioning was significant: Among
seniors starting to slip mentally, those who were widowed during
the study period progressed to full-blown dementia about a decade
later than those who were still married.
Woodruff is scheduled to present two studies on widowhood and
dementia on Monday at an international meeting of the Alzheimer's
Association in Copenhagen, Denmark.
His other research project found no increased dementia risk in
adults who were mentally sharp at the study's start and later lost
In both studies, Woodruff took into account a genetic
predisposition for dementia and other factors that might affect
risk or progression, and the findings held.
Still, studies presented at medical meetings are typically
viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
"It's premature to say this is definitive," said Woodruff. Other
studies need to be done to confirm the results, he said.
The message for loved ones of widowed older adults, whether
their relative has memory problems or not? Provide more support,
Woodruff said, and get help sooner rather than later if memory
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, the most
common form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
The progressive brain disorder is marked by memory problems,
confusion and difficulties managing day-to-day life. Slight memory
and thinking problems -- called mild cognitive impairment -- can
progress to Alzheimer's.
Widowhood has been linked with health problems, including
depression and "broken heart syndrome," Woodruff said. But little
is known about its effect on dementia, and he wanted to learn
In the first study, his team started with about 3,800 married
men and women starting to show some brain decline. They excluded
people who got divorced or separated during the study or left no
follow-up information. Of the roughly 2,500 people remaining, 134
lost a spouse during the study period, which ran from 2005 to
Almost 1,100 developed dementia. But those who were widowed
progressed to dementia at age 92 roughly, while those who didn't
lose a spouse were demented by age 83 -- nearly a 10-year
difference, the researchers found.
In the other study, Woodruff and his team evaluated more than
6,000 men and women who were married and had no memory issues when
they entered the study. After excluding those who divorced or
provided no follow-up information, they followed more than 4,400
men and women for an average of nearly four years.
Of that group, 218 developed dementia. However, those who were
widowed weren't likely to develop it any sooner than the married
group. For both, the median age was 96. (Half developed it sooner,
Dean Hartley, director of science initiatives for the
Alzheimer's Association, was surprised by the findings involving
participants with mild impairment.
"We had thought that increased stress [with spousal loss] would accelerate a person with [mild cognitive impairment] going on to dementia," said Hartley, who was not involved with either study.
The idea that the extra support may explain the finding makes
sense, he said.
For more about dementia, visit the
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