Nav: Home

Widowhood accelerates cognitive decline among those at risk for Alzheimer's disease

February 26, 2020

Boston, MA -- The death of a spouse often means the loss of intimacy, companionship and everyday support for older adults. A new study finds that widowhood can have another profound effect: It may accelerate cognitive decline. Investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed older, cognitively normal Americans enrolled in the Harvard Aging Brain Study whose marital status and brain β-amyloid levels -- a marker of Alzheimer's disease -- were determined at the beginning of the study. The team found that individuals who were widowed experienced a sharper cognitive decline than their married counterparts, especially among those who had high β-amyloid levels. The study suggests that widowhood may be an important and understudied risk factor for cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's disease and highlights the need for increased focus on this high-risk population. Findings are published in JAMA Network Open.

"We know that social relationships can be an important buffer against cognitive decline," said senior author Nancy Donovan, MD, of the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry at the Brigham and an associate researcher at Mass General. "Being married provides 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."

Women are at increased risk for both widowhood and Alzheimer's disease, both of which increase in frequency with age. The study, which included 260 cognitively unimpaired adults ages 62 to 89 -- 153 women and 107 men -- classified its subjects into three groups: married, widowed or unmarried (divorced, single, separated or never married). Of these subjects, 66 women and 79 men were married; 31 women and four men were widowed. The researchers measured the subjects' β-amyloid levels using PET scans at the beginning of the study.

Donovan and colleagues evaluated a participant's cognitive performance each year for four years using a series of tests to analyze various dimensions of cognition. They found that cognitive performance declined in the widowed group, differing significantly from the married group. There was no difference between the married group and the unmarried group. In addition, they found that among adults with the highest β-amyloid levels, those who were widowed had the sharpest decline in cognition compared to those who were married, declining at a rate three times faster. This finding was independent of many factors including age, sex, socioeconomic status, and depression.

The authors note this is the first study to show a combined and synergistic effect of widowhood and β-amyloid on cognitive decline and will need to be replicated in other studies.

"Our division has become very interested in understanding the physiological effects of widowhood so that we can develop interventions to try to alter these trajectories," said Donovan. "Our findings also suggest that researchers engaged in Alzheimer's disease prevention trials may want to pay particular attention to widowed older adults to tailor interventions for this especially susceptible group of patients."
-end-
This study was supported by the National Institute on Aging (R21 AG054953, P01 AG036694) and the European Union Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant agreement (award number, IF-2015-GF, 706714). Donovan reported receiving research salary support from Eli Lilly and Co., and Eisai, and serving on the advisory board for Avanir Pharmaceuticals outside the submitted work. Co-authors reported fees from Jazz Pharmaceuticals, AC Immune, Biogen, Neurocentria, Eisai, Roche Holding, Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, Novartis, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly and Co., outside the submitted work.

Paper cited: Biddle, Kelsey et al. "Associations of Widowhood and ß-Amyloid With Cognitive Decline in Cognitively Unimpaired Older Adults" JAMA Network Open DOI:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.0121

Brigham Health, a global leader in creating a healthier world, consists of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital, the Brigham and Women's Physicians Organization and many related facilities and programs. With more than 1,000 inpatient beds, approximately 60,000 inpatient stays and 1.7 million outpatient encounters annually, Brigham Health's 1,200 physicians provide expert care in virtually every medical and surgical specialty to patients locally, regionally and around the world. An international leader in basic, clinical and translational research, Brigham Health has nearly 5,000 scientists, including physician-investigators, renowned biomedical researchers and faculty supported by over $700 million in funding. The Brigham's medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and now, with 19,000 employees, that rich history is the foundation for its commitment to research, innovation, and community. Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and dedicated to educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. For more information, resources, and to follow us on social media, please visit brighamandwomens.org.

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Related Cognitive Decline Articles:

Lifestyle improvements may lessen cognitive decline
Results from a new study suggest that lifestyle changes may help to improve cognition in older adults experiencing cognitive decline that precedes dementia.
Baby boomers show concerning decline in cognitive functioning
In a reversal of trends, American baby boomers scored lower on a test of cognitive functioning than did members of previous generations, according to a new nationwide study.
Memory loss reversed or abated in those with cognitive decline
Affirmativ Health sought to determine whether a comprehensive and personalized program, designed to mitigate risk factors of Alzheimer's disease could improve cognitive and metabolic function in individuals experiencing cognitive decline.
Delirium may cause long term cognitive decline
A new meta-analysis of 24 observational studies from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons found that delirium may cause significant long-term cognitive decline.
Is delirium associated with long-term cognitive decline?
The results of 23 studies were combined to examine whether an episode of delirium is a risk factor for long-term cognitive decline.
Maintaining heart health may protect against cognitive decline
People with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease have increased cognitive decline, including an increase in typical markers of Alzheimer's disease, suggesting that monitoring and controlling for heart disease may be key to maintaining and improving cognitive health later in life, according to research published today in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Hypertension in young adulthood associated with cognitive decline in middle age
Research from Tel Aviv University indicates that high blood pressure in young adulthood is associated with cognitive decline and gait impairment in middle age.
Hearing aids may delay cognitive decline, research finds
Wearing hearing aids may delay cognitive decline in older adults and improve brain function, according to promising new research.
Walnuts may slow cognitive decline in at-risk elderly
Eating walnuts may help slow cognitive decline in at-risk groups of the elderly population, according to a study conducted by researchers in California and Spain.
Research shows that early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline
Early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline among the elderly, according to research conducted by faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
More Cognitive Decline News and Cognitive Decline Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: IRL Online
Original broadcast date: March 20, 2020. Our online lives are now entirely interwoven with our real lives. But the laws that govern real life don't apply online. This hour, TED speakers explore rules to navigate this vast virtual space.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#574 State of the Heart
This week we focus on heart disease, heart failure, what blood pressure is and why it's bad when it's high. Host Rachelle Saunders talks with physician, clinical researcher, and writer Haider Warraich about his book "State of the Heart: Exploring the History, Science, and Future of Cardiac Disease" and the ails of our hearts.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Falling
There are so many ways to fall–in love, asleep, even flat on your face. This hour, Radiolab dives into stories of great falls.  We jump into a black hole, take a trip over Niagara Falls, upend some myths about falling cats, and plunge into our favorite songs about falling. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.