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The health risks of being single
Fewer people are getting married, which is making some doctors worry about what that might mean for how we treat Alzheimer's disease. - photo by JJ Feinauer
The decline in marriage rates has been shown to have possible negative economic implications, as The Deseret News National has reported several times. But according to medical researcher Angelo E. Volandes, the shift away from stable family structures could have unexpected ramifications on our national health as well.

In an article for Psychology Today, Volandes tells the story of Judith, a 69-year old unmarried woman suffering from dementia. Judith didn't have anyone to care for her in her old age, something that became painfully more clear as her health declined. Because of this, the hospital was forced to make very difficult, and very personal decisions that are typically handled by family members.

"Once upon a time in American medicine, you could usually rely on the presence of a spouse, family member or friend to help make decisions for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease," Volandes wrote. "That is likely no longer going to be the case."

The primary concern, according to Volandes, is that state programs intended to make sure the elderly have guardians are impractical and underfunded. The fact of the matter is, he argues, there isn't a very effective way to replace family members.

However, Big Think's Robert Montenegro believes it's important to remember that just because marriage rates are declining, that doesn't necessarily mean there are fewer loved ones around to care for the elderly but Volandes' observation is nonetheless a pertinent one.

"We know that's not always the case as there are plenty of unmarried folks who have children or partners," Montenegro wrote in response to Volandes' article. "But the holes in his argument are miniscule; his main concern is perfectly valid. We're going to see a whole lot of single people without kids develop dementia in the coming generation."

Writing in 2008, The New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope expressed similar concerns, but she also feared that the trend away from marriage might actually be increasing the risk of Alzheimer's.

"Its long been known that social relationships can decrease the risk of developing dementia," she wrote, citing a report by Harvard researchers. And those with a "spouse or partner" have been shown to have a "50 percent lower risk of developing dementia during their older years than people living alone."

Even though there are plenty of ways in which people can keep their social lives active well into old age, as she wrote in a separate article, the built-in benefit of having a spouse around is hard to replace.