Living Alone Brings Additional Challenges in Relation to Dementia

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I’ve always wondered what happens to single people in relation to dementia.  It’s an important question to ask since single Americans now make up more than half of the adult population. In fact, there were 123.6 million single Americans as of August 2014 (although some of these are in their 20s and 30s). Furthermore, the percentage of adult Americans who have never been married is now 30.4 percent, as compared to 22.1 percent in 1976. The percentage of Americans who are divorced, separated or widowed is almost 20 percent, as compared to 15.3 percent in 1976.

    So can living alone be a factor in developing dementia during one’s lifetime? Some researchers believe that indeed may be the case. A 2009 study out of Sweden found that divorcees, widowers and middle-aged people who lived by themselves had a threefold higher risk of developing dementia than people who were married or who lived together. Thus, this study suggests that regular social contact through a steady relationship helps protect people from this type of mental decline.

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    Another issue that also emerges is getting diagnosis of dementia. A recently published study involved 845 people who were at least 70 years old and who were participating in the Aging, Demographics and Memory Study, which is a nationally representative community-based cohort study. All of these participants were assessed in person for dementia and researchers identified 297 who met the criteria for a diagnosis of dementia. The researchers then asked people who knew these participants whether the participants had received a clinical cognitive evaluation by a health care professional outside of the study.  
    There were some interesting findings that emerged from this study:

    • Slightly more than 55 percent of the participants had no history of being cognitively evaluated by their doctor.
    • Using this data as a basis, the researchers calculated that approximately 18 million elderly Americans who have dementia have not been evaluated by a physician.
    • The only significant predictor of participants receiving a clinical cognitive evaluation was marital status.  Participants who were married were more likely to be evaluated.
    • Participants who had more severe cognitive issues were more likely to be evaluated by a health care professional than participants who had less severe signs.

    So if you’re single and worried about your cognitive function, please do talk to your doctor about being evaluated. The American Family Physicians recommends that an evaluation should involve the following:

    • Measurement of the patient’s cognitive impairment using a test such as the Mini-Mental State Examination or other assessment that the physician is familiar with and adept in using.
    • A laboratory evaluation to determine complete blood count, thyroid-stimulating hormone, serum electrolytes, serum calcium, and serum glucose.
    • Structural neuroimaging, such as noncontrast computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
    • Compilation of a thorough history for the patient which includes discussions with other family members as well as an evaluation of the patient for depression using an instrument such as the Geriatric Depression Scale.

    And while there isn’t any sure way to prevent dementia, I’d encourage single people who are concerned about dementia to be very vigilant in making lifestyle choices that may lower their chances. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following:

    • Get regular physical activity.
    • Eat a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve written an earlier sharepost for this site that indicates that a Mediterranean diet may offer some protection against dementia.
    • Do mentally stimulating activities such as crossword, hobbies, reading, Sudoku, or puzzles.
    • Pursue higher education.
    • Socialize.
    • Quit smoking.
    • Lower your blood pressure.

    Being single can be a wonderful thing but it may come at a price for your cognitive health. Therefore, it’s really important to remain mentally engaged and physically active and to engage in excellent self-care so you can lead a full and healthy life.

    Primary Sources for This Study:

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    Adelman, A. M. & Daly, M. P. (2005). Initial evaluation of the patient with suspected dementia. American Family Physician.

    Campbell, D. (2009). Dementia is greater for single people in later life, study finds. The Guardian.

    Kotagal, V. (2014). Factors associated with cognitive evaluations in the United States. Neurology.

    Mayo Clinic. (2014). Dementia prevention.

    Miller, R. (2014). Is everybody single? More than half the U.S. now, up from 37% in ’76.

    Preidt, R. (2014). Two few Americans undergo dementia screening. MedlinePlus.

Published On: December 02, 2014