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Widows and widowers suffer more cognitive decline


Effects of spouse death on cognition

The spouse's death often means loss of intimacy, community, and everyday support for older adults. Now researchers have found that the death of a spouse can also accelerate cognitive decline.

A recent joint investigation by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital found that the death of a spouse negatively affected and accelerated cognitive decline. The results of the study were published in the English language journal "JAMA Network Open".

Spouse's death has serious consequences

If the spouse dies, this has a profound effect on the remaining spouse, which can lead to accelerated cognitive decline. The researchers came to this result by analyzing data from older, cognitively completely normal Americans who took part in the Harvard Aging Brain Study, in which the marital status and the so-called β-amyloid level (a marker for Alzheimer's) were determined at the beginning.

Also influences the risk of Alzheimer's?

The research team found that widowed women experienced a greater cognitive decline than married people, especially if they had high β-amyloid levels. The study suggests that partner loss could be an important and under-studied risk factor for the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's disease. This underlines the need to focus more on this risk group.

Social relationships are an important buffer against cognitive decline

It is already known that social relationships can be an important buffer against cognitive decline, the researchers report. Being married offers the opportunity for more social and emotional support from the spouse. Living together with a partner also expands the social network and offers more opportunities for cognitive stimulation.

Spouse death has harmful effects on the brain

All of these benefits are lost when a partner dies. The loss of the spouse is an extremely stressful life event, which can also have harmful effects on the brain. Women are at increased risk of surviving their partners and developing Alzheimer's disease.

260 cognitively healthy people were examined for the study

A total of 260 cognitively impaired adults aged 62 to 89 years participated in the study. These were 153 women and 107 men. The participants were initially divided into three groups: married people, people with a deceased partner and unmarried people (divorced, single, separated or never married). Of the participants, 66 women and 79 men were married and 31 women and four men were widowed. At the start of the study, the researchers measured the subjects' β-amyloid values ​​with the help of PET scans.

Cognitive performance has been observed for four years

The research group evaluated the cognitive performance of the participants each year for four years. To do this, they used a series of tests to analyze cognition. They found that cognitive performance in the widowed group decreased and was significantly different from the married group. However, no difference could be found between the married group and the unmarried group.

Cognitive decline in widowed people three times faster

In addition, the researchers found that among the adults with the highest β-amyloid values, the widowed showed the greatest decrease in cognitive performance compared to the married, and this decline progressed three times faster. This finding was independent of many factors such as age, gender, socio-economic status and depression.

More research is needed

The research group notes that this is the first study to show a combined and intensifying effect of widowhood and β-amyloid on cognitive decline. Such a result must now be checked in other studies. It is important to better understand the physiological effects of widowhood so that interventions can be developed to try to stop or reduce the negative effects. (as)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Swell:

  • BA Kelsey D. Biddle, PhD Heidi IL Jacobs, BA Federico d'Oleire Uquillas, Benjamin S. Zide1, MPH Dylan R. Kirn et al .: Associations of Widowhood and β-Amyloid With Cognitive Decline in Cognitively Unimpaired Older Adults, in JAMA Network Open (published 02/26/2020), JAMA Network Open


Video: UCLA Longevity Center, 2020-07-08, Caring for Your Mind Health During a Pandemic, Dr Small, Dr Jalil (January 2022).