The intersection of race, gender and marital loss in predicting dementia risk

April 23, 2021 - Liz Schondelmayer

With symptoms such as cognitive decline and memory loss, dementia is an extremely difficult chronic condition that often targets older adults. While research has shown that biological factors play a role in determining the development of dementia, social scientists are identifying societal influences that factor in as well.

New research from MSU sociologists Dr. Zhenmei Zhang (lead researcher) and Dr. Hui Liu, together with MSU alumna and assistant professor of sociology at Texas Tech University, Seung-won Emily Choi, explores the connection between marital dissolution and dementia, paying special attention to the intersection of race and gender. 

The research was funded in part by two grants from the National Institute of Aging. Using a publicly available national data set, the research team found that the association between marital loss and dementia risk vary by race and gender. 

For example, they found that widowhood significantly increased the risk for dementia among both Black and White Americans, but that for Black people, the risk was even higher.  Another finding revealed that divorce also significantly increases the likelihood for dementia in Black men and women, but among White older adults, only men saw an increased likelihood due to divorce. 

To explain the link between higher risk of dementia in widowhood for White people, the sociologists found that household income was a major factor. “Widows and widowers tend to have much lower income than married people, which is a risk factor of dementia,” explained Dr. Zhang. “Widowed older adults are also more likely to be smokers, and smoking increases the risk of dementia later in life.”

For Black divorcees and widows, lower household income also put them at higher risk of dementia. However, unlike White people, much of the difference between marital loss and dementia risk remains unexplained, even after the researchers take into account household income, chronic disease, and smoking. 

While these findings do not indicate that marital loss necessarily causes dementia, they reveal patterns that can inform identification of the vulnerable groups and intervention efforts for the condition. 

This research article is Dr. Zhang and Dr. Liu's second published paper on the topic. Their first paper, released in 2019, found a strong correlation between marital status and the development of dementia.

"I've been interested in studying divorce and widowhood for a long time, because they top the list of the most stressful events people can experience in their lifetime," noted Dr. Zhang. "However, there isn't a lot of research out there that explores their long-term consequences for cognitive health among different racial and ethnic groups."

To continue their work in this area, the MSU sociologists are working on another study which will explore the role of outside social relationships, such as friendships and other family relationships, in lowering the likelihood an individual has of developing dementia after experiencing marital loss. 

Read the full research article here.