New research shows that insecure attachment is linked to cognitive functioning in older couples. The results were published in Personality Research Journal.
“I came across a book chapter that mentioned how attachment can be linked to Alzheimer’s disease and I was hooked,” said study author Rebekka Weidmann, a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University’s Close Relationships Lab.
“The idea that what was going on in the romantic couple could be linked to cognitive decline in later adulthood was very intriguing to me. So I emailed Prof. Chopik—an attachment expert—to ask if he would be interested in collaborating on a study on attachment and cognitive health. Luckily it was, and we designed and conducted the Attachment and Neurodegenerative Disease study that provided the data for the current article.”
A large body of research has shown that people can be secure or insecure in their attachments to others, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. Anxiously attached individuals agree with statements such as “I’m afraid my partner might leave me,” while avoidantly attached individuals agree with statements such as “I don’t feel comfortable opening up to my partner.”
Researchers had 1,043 couples (who had been together for at least six months) complete assessments of romantic attachment, cognitive impairment, dementia symptoms, memory, stress, and relationship satisfaction. The participants were on average 64.7 years old, couples had lived together for an average of 35.8 years.
Weidmann and Chopik found that insecure attachment was associated with higher stress, and higher stress was associated with greater cognitive impairment for both the participants themselves and their partners.
Participants with more anxious attachment tended to report greater cognitive impairment, including greater loss of skills and poorer memory of recent events. However, anxious attachment was unrelated to dementia symptoms or memory performance. Participants with avoidant attachment, on the other hand, showed no tendency towards cognitive impairment. However, the partners of individuals with avoidant attachments were more likely to report cognitive impairment and demonstrated poorer memory performance.
“The takeaway from the study is that insecure attachment is associated with cognitive health differently depending on whether you look at fearful attachment or avoidant attachment,” Weidmann told PsyPost. “Anxiously attached people tend to have lower self-rated cognitive health during partner of people with avoidant attachment tend to have lower cognitive health but also perform worse on an objective memory task. These effects cannot be fully explained by relationship satisfaction, suggesting the possibility that there are other things going on in the couple that link insecure attachment to their cognitive health.”
Researchers controlled for a range of factors known to affect cognitive function and romantic attachment, including educational level, income, body mass index, relationship length and general health. But the study, like all research, comes with some caveats.
“The big caveat is that it was a cross-sectional study,” Weidmann explained. “Although the sample was very large and we measured cognitive health in many different ways, we still know little about the direction of the effects. Is cognitive health declining because of insecure attachment in romantic partners, or is people’s attachment security becoming more insecure because of their cognitive decline and partner? These are questions that need to be addressed going forward.”
The study “Romantic attachment, stress, and cognitive functioning in a large sample of middle-aged and elderly couples” was authored by Rebekka Weidmann and William J. Chopik.