Medical Research: What are the main findings of the study?
Dr. Woodruff: There is evidence in the medical literature supporting a negative impact of losing a spouse for health conditions such as cancer or cardiovascular disease, but this has not been evaluated in terms of the impact of widowhood on the development of dementia. We used the National Alzheimer’s Disease Coordinating Center (NACC) database, which pools data gathered by multiple federally-funded Alzheimer’s disease research centers to try to answer this question. Specifically, we looked at the age at which individuals ultimately developed dementia in both individuals who lost their spouse and in those who remained married over the course of the study. Surprisingly, the data we analyzed did not support a negative impact of losing a spouse in individuals who had no cognitive difficulties when they entered the study, and we saw a paradoxical effect of widowhood in those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Medical Research: Were any of the findings unexpected?
Dr. Woodruff: Yes, in particular for individuals with MCI. Those individuals with mild cognitive impairment who lost their spouse eventually developed dementia at a much later age than individuals with mild cognitive impairment who remained married, which is the exact opposite of what we had anticipated.
Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Dr. Woodruff: It should be made clear that we do not think that widowhood itself is beneficial for individuals with mild cognitive impairment. We suspect that when an individual with mild cognitive impairment loses a spouse, they are losing their primary source of support, resulting in mobilization of additional supports for that individual, whether that be from extended family or community support organizations. If this is the case, the implication is that more support may be needed for the married couples as well. This would align well with the literature documenting the significant stress of caregiving for individuals with memory loss, and suggests that earlier implementation of more robust support may have additional long-term benefits.
Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Woodruff: Repeating this study in a community-based cohort would allow us to better tease apart the factors that might explain this effect, whether it be the types of support that are put into place to support the individual who has lost their spouse versus other variables that we could not analyze in our original study. For example, we did not have information about why some individuals were lost to follow-up in the original study – if widowhood played a major role, that could clearly impact the conclusions of our study.