Losing a Spouse Could Speed Brain’s Decline

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 26, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Losing a spouse can be a heartbreaker, and new research suggests it’s also tough on the brain.

The study found that when a husband or wife dies, the surviving mate’s mental acuity could start to decline.

In fact, people who are widowed and have high levels of beta-amyloid plaque, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, appear to experience cognitive decline three times faster than similar people who have not lost a spouse, the researchers added.

“The associations of widowhood and amyloid were compounded, not simply additive, indicating that widowhood is a specific risk factor for cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease,” explained lead researcher Dr. Nancy Donovan, chief of the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at Alzheimer’s Association, reviewed the findings and said this small study can’t prove that being widowed causes cognitive decline, but it may well be a factor.

Donovan said the specific mechanisms by which widowhood increases the risk of cognitive decline isn’t known.

“Some studies suggest that having close relationships, such as a close sibling or adult child, helps to protect against cognitive decline among widows, though we didn’t find this in our study,” Donovan said.

It is likely that being married has beneficial effects by providing daily emotional support, stimulating companionship, better health behaviors and larger social networks, she said.

For people who lose a spouse, Donovan recommends “what we know to be beneficial overall for older adults: exercise, social engagement, cognitively stimulating activities, a healthy diet, manage stress levels and reduce cardiovascular risk factors.”

Dr. Marzena Gieniusz, a geriatrician and internist at Northwell Health in Manhasset, N.Y., said she often sees cognitive decline in surviving spouses in her practice.

“I think being married is likely a protective factor, which is lost when the spouse passes away,” she said.

It’s possible that the beginnings of thinking declines were already present in the surviving spouse, but hidden, said Gieniusz, who wasn’t involved with the study.