Married people have it all—the combined income, the tax benefits, even no-nonsense sex on a regular basis. What more could you possibly want?
Well, since you asked, a new study reveals one more bonus to taking the plunge on a lifelong partnership, and it’s a pretty big one. According to research published recently in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, being married may reduce the risk of developing dementia as you get older.
The thought of one day waking up and not knowing who you or your loved ones are—think elderly Allie in The Notebook freaking out over a dance with her longtime husband, Noah—is scary as hell. But it’s a reality that too many Americans face: The Alzheimer’s Association reports that every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease. By 2050, the number of people living with Alzheimer’s could be as high as 16 million.
Because of stats like this, researchers out of University College London (UCL) wanted to get a better understanding of risk factors associated with dementia. They conducted a review of 15 studies that included more than 800,000 participants from Europe, North and South America, and Asia. In their analysis, the study’s authors discovered that people who had remained single all their lives actually had a 42 percent higher risk of developing dementia compared to married couples. People who were widowed had a 20 percent elevated risk, while divorced people had no difference compared to married people.
Andrew Sommerlad, a research fellow and psychiatrist at UCL, is the lead author on the study. He points out that the “lower risk of dementia for married people remains even when their better physical health is taken into account in the analysis, suggesting that the benefit of marriage is about more than just improving physical health.”
In fact, he and his team say their findings may be related to people having increased social interaction because they live with a spouse or partner. “Marital status has potential to affect dementia risk by increasing daily social interaction,” they write in their paper. “This may improve cognitive reserve, meaning that an individual has a greater ability to cope with neuropathological damage by using compensatory cognitive approaches from a physically more resilient brain to maintain cognitive ability and daily function.”
Interestingly, though, when a couple gets married or starts a family, their single friends typically expect them to fall off the face of the planet, trading in their late nights at the go-to spot for Netflix and jammies. But when it comes to maintaining sound cognitive abilities, it really does make a big difference to engage with someone regularly. “It is likely,” Sommerlad explains, “that unmarried people, even though they may socialize more with their wide social circle, have less total lifetime social contact, on account of not living with another person.”
Sommerlad adds that their study was based on people born during the first half of the 20th century and that younger generations may not have too much to be worried about. “Our research suggested that the elevated risk for single people may be lessening over time, so the picture may be different for young people now. Single people born during the first quarter of the 20th century had a 40 percent higher risk than married people, whereas later studies only found a 24 percent higher risk. As being unmarried becomes more of a social norm, it is likely that lifestyle differences between married and unmarried people are lessening.”
If you’re still worried, though, Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK offered this statement in response to the study’s findings: “Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle, and these are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards. It’s important to remember that this study is taking a population-level view, and age, genetic, and lifestyle factors will all play a role in defining someone’s risk of dementia at an individual level.”