Apart from giving you heartbreak, widowhood can also be detrimental to your mental health. A new study published in JAMA Network Open has found that widows are thrice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as married couples.
Alzheimer’s – a steady decline in cognition and memory – is caused by increased production of the β-amyloids. β-amyloids are proteins of 36-43 amino acids that maintain brain function but if they increase in number, they can cause memory loss. Alzheimer’s, a subset of dementia, affects 50 million people worldwide, and according to calculations will target 150 million people by 2050.
Dr. Nancy J. Dovovan, chief of geriatric psychiatry at Brigham and Women Hospital, and other researchers recruited 257 married, widowed and unmarried individuals (153 women, 107 men) and followed them for seven years (2010 to 2017). Their β-amyloid levels were evaluated with the help of PET scans and four annual cognitive assessments were done.
All people were more than 70 years of age and less than 75. 145 participants were married, 77 were unmarried and 35 were widowed. When compared with married, the widowed showed poor cognitive performance after adjusting age, sex, socioeconomic factors, depression and β-amyloids whereas no difference was observed between married and unmarried women.
The widowed had higher levels of β-amyloids. The rate of cognitive decline was three times faster in widowed participants as compared to married participants.
Senior author Nancy Donovan states, “We know that social relationships can be an important buffer against cognitive decline. Being married provides an opportunity for more social engagement and emotional support from a spouse, it expands one’s social network and it provides more opportunity for cognitive stimulation. All of these benefits are lost in widowhood. Importantly, loss of a spouse is a highly stressful life event which can have deleterious effects on the brain.”
The study has corroborated earlier findings that women, who both outnumber and outlive men, are at increased risk Alzheimer’s. In the USA alone, there are 11 million widowed women out of a total of 13.7 million widowed people. However, this is the first study that has directly measured β-amyloids levels and its effects on cognition in the widowed.
The researchers of the study state that now we need to focus on physiological changes that occur in widowhood. Our results show that scientists need to focus on widowed older adults so interventions and special care can be given to them as they are at higher risk.
Widowhood can be lonely and gloomy but there are numerous support groups that lend hand, company and recommendations to the elderly. The American Widow Project, for instance, helps military widows in combating post-traumatic stress disorder. There are many dating apps such as OkCupid and eHarmony for 60+ people so that can find a partner and enjoy companionship.
Javeria Din, MD, a member of American Medical Association explains that being married has tremendous benefits for mental health. The companionship and the fact that there is someone to share your thoughts and struggles with releases happy hormones (serotonin) in the body. Serotonin reduces symptoms of distress and anxiety and paves way for happiness and contentment.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) recommends a number of healthy activities for the old, retired and widowed. They say that to improve brain health, people should go for regular walks, do yoga and meditation, sing, read, paint, have a pet or cook for friends so that they have small but mentally-engaging targets to look forward to.