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Active Social Life Helps Keep Aging Mind Sharp
Date:5/29/2008

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In another study in the same issue of the journal, Finnish researchers reported that elderly people are more likely to be institutionalized following the death of a spouse.

"We found that the risk of entering long-term institutional care was higher among older adults who had lost their spouse than among those living with their spouse," said lead researcher Elina Nihtila, from the department of sociology at the University of Helsinki.

Moreover, the excess risk of institutionalization was highest during the first month after the spouse's death, Nihtila said. "The risk was more than three times among both men and women, and decreased with time from bereavement, stabilizing at approximately 20 percent to 50 percent higher over one to five years," she said.

Fortunately, a large proportion of surviving spouses are likely to recover from partner loss, and feelings of despair and anxiety typically do diminish over time, Nihtila said. This "emotional recovery could explain why the very large excess risk of entering institutional care among those recently bereaved dropped with time from the spouse's death," she said.

The study involved data on almost 141,000 people 65 and older living with a spouse. During five years of follow-up, the risk of being institutionalized rose immediately after the death of a spouse, the researchers found.

There could be various explanations for these findings, Nihtila said, including a "loss of social and instrumental support, in the form of care and help with daily activities such as help in cooking, cleaning, and shopping formerly shared with the deceased spouse."

In addition, grief and spousal loss may cause various symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, fatigue and loss of concentration, Nihtila noted. "Furthermore, grief may cause increased susceptibility to physical diseases that could also increase the need for institutiona
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