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By Amy Norton HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Jan. 31, 2023 (HealthDay News) — Tying the knot is now tied to healthier aging brains: People who stay married for the long haul may gain some protection from dementia, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that compared with both divorced people and lifelong singles, older adults in a long-term marriage were less likely to develop dementia. Roughly 11% were diagnosed with dementia after age 70, versus 12% to 14% of their divorced or single counterparts.

When the researchers weighed other factors that could affect dementia risk — like education levels and lifestyle habits — long-term marriage was still linked to a protective effect: Divorced and unmarried adults were 50% to 73% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

The study is not the first to tie marital status to dementia risk, according to researcher Bjorn Heine Strand, a senior scientist with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, in Oslo.

“Marriage has been reported to be associated with reduced dementia risk in numerous studies, and our results add to this evidence,” Strand said.

The big question is why the link exists. Figuring out the reasons, Strand said, is important — especially considering changing demographics and social norms. The elderly population is growing, meaning more people are at risk of dementia; meanwhile, more people are getting divorced or saying no to marriage altogether.

The findings, published in the Journal of Aging and Health, are based on over 8,700 Norwegian adults whose marital status was tracked from age 44 to 68. Strand’s team then looked for correlations with participants’ likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia after age 70.

Overall, just under 12% were diagnosed with dementia during the study period, while another 35% developed mild cognitive impairment — problems with memory and thinking skills that may, or may not, progress to dementia.

In general, Strand’s team found, marital status was not strongly tied to the risk of milder impairments. But there was a clear relationship with dementia risk: Staying married conferred more protection, versus being divorced (consistently or “intermittently”) or unmarried (which counted singles and people who lived with a partner).

The researchers tried to find explanations. Physical health conditions, like heart disease, may contribute to dementia. Similarly, depression, lower education levels, smoking and being sedentary have all been tied to higher dementia risk.

None of those factors, however, seemed to fully account for why divorced and unmarried people had a higher dementia risk.

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