Under the Hood

Widowhood Reportedly Increases Alzheimer’s Risk

Losing a husband or wife in old age is the most tragic occurrence that can disturb the life of the living spouse, having serious repercussions on mental health. The impact of widowhood on cognitive decline leading to Alzheimer’s disease has never been studied in detail before and is now considered an under-recognized factor. 

“The loss of a life partner has to be among the most devastating and stressful life events, and it is thus not surprising of this impact on cognitive health,” Dr. Richard Isaacson, Director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine,  told CNN.

“Death of a spouse is considered to be among the most stressful life events. Early sequelae include painful feelings of loss, sadness,and sleep disturbance, particularly in the context of greater depressive symptoms,” the researchers stated in the paper. Cortisol, the stress hormone triggered during the trauma of grieving over the death of a spouse, had shown to cause problems with memory, one of the main signs of Alzheimer’s, according to previous studies.  

Alzheimer’s disease affects 50 million people worldwide, hence the recent study published in JAMA Network Open has been long overdue. Sticky clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid found in the brain are associated with cognitive decline and the researchers used this marker to determine the results. 

What The Study Found

Researchers recruited 257 participants from Harvard Aging Brain Study for this longitudinal cohort and they conducted a baseline evaluation of  beta-amyloid accumulation in the brain, indicating future risk for Alzheimer's disease. None of the participants displayed any symptoms of cognitive decline at the beginning of the study in September 2010. The study lasted till February 2017. 

From the cohort, 153 were women with a mean age of 73.5 years. Of them, 145 were married and 77 were unmarried. The widowed participants underwent cognitive tests every year for three years. 

They found that irrespective of gender, socioeconomic status and age, those who were widowed showed more signs of cognitive decline compared to married or single participants. It did not matter that the widowed participants had low β-amyloid levels. Furthermore, research was conducted on widowed people with high beta-amyloid, and found that they experienced cognitive decline three times faster than their unmarried counterparts. 

“In a secondary model using dichotomous β-amyloid–marital status groupings, the rate of cognitive decline among widowed participants with high β-amyloid was nearly 3 times faster than among married participants with high β-amyloid,” the researchers explained. 

While the results were independent of other risk factors, there is further study that needs to be done to figure out specific interventions. “The next step toward improving cognitive outcomes in widowers at risk should be greater attention toward the types of interventions, support and resources that could maintain brain health,” Isaacson added. 

Widow Widows and widowers are more at risk for cognitive decline than their married counterparts. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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