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Does a 'brainy wife' reduce a spouse's risk of dementia?

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There is little evidence to support this claim.

A new study found that a "brainy wife" decreases symptoms of dementia and the onset of other neurodegenerative diseases while prolonging the lifespan of both spouses. According to the article, there is no better buffer for dementia than an intelligent life partner. It claims that a partner with a higher level of education and a higher powered occupation, is able to create a challenging mental environment (conversations, intellectual games, literature reading) that lowers the risk of dementia onset.

The claim status is highly unlikely. The news claim proclaimed that an intelligent partner reduces the risk of dementia in their life-long partner. Although there is evidence to support that an individual with a higher childhood IQ does live a longer life, there is no research to support a correlation between a high IQ wife and decrease onset in dementia in the husband.

Origin and Prevalence

This news claim was published on Daily Mail, an online tabloid newspaper. This newspaper has a reputation for publishing fake and unreliable science stories and medical research cases. In addition, the newspaper has encountered several lawsuits due to past false publications. The author of the news claim, Jemma Buckley, is a journalist and a trainee reporter for the Daily Mail. According to her CV, Ms. Buckley has worked on a variety of British tabloid newspapers. She is not an expert in the field of dementia or any scientific discipline. She referenced her sources from Dr. Lawrence Whalley, a retired mental health professor at the University of Aberdeen and part-time research professor at University of the Highlands and Island. He has authored or co-authored more than 200 scientific publications and seven books relating to dementias of old age. He is an expert on brain aging and his research is focused on exploring how childhood factors influence dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Issues and Analysis

There was no research study conducted by Dr. Whalley to support the claim proposed by Daily Mail. Ms. Buckley came to her conclusion from a quote Dr. Whalley stated during an Oxford Literary Festival talk, Dementia: How Can We Protect Ourselves? During the interview, Dr. Whalley was asked how we prevent dementia onset, to which he jokingly replied, "The thing a boy is never told he needs to do if he wants to live a longer life – but what he should do – is marry an intelligent woman. There is no better buffer than intelligence." This quote was blown out of proportion by the press and social. The Daily Mail distorted the quote and mislead its non-scientific audience about Dr. Whalley's research in childhood intelligence and brain aging.

Daily Mail also cited their claims based on a longitudinal study published in 2001 by Dr. Whalley. In this study, he analyzed childhood IQ and mortality rates between 2792 children in the U.K. from 1932 until 1997. It was observed that childhood mental ability, measured by IQ tests, was positively correlated to survival of age 76 years in both men and women. They concluded that other factors such as socioeconomic status, nutrition, genetic makeup, healthy behaviors, and environment, all influenced the individual's death age. However, there was no explanation to whether the effect was cohort specific or if the effect was caused by a single factor Dr. Whalley examined. Therefore, this study could not support the claim that a higher IQ is correlated with a longer lifespan.

In addition, the brain scan images presented in the article did not originate from any of Professor Whalley's previous publications. In fact, this image has been used in countless online articles and blogs proclaiming various claims. Although the cohort study was published in 2001, Dr. Whalley collected the data from the mental ability tests in 1932. The first MRI scan wasn't produced until 1977. Therefore, this MRI photo cannot be verified as authentic for this news claim.


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