Anxious and avoidant attachment are related to cognitive functioning in older couples

Anxious and avoidant attachment are related to cognitive functioning in older couples

New research provides evidence that insecure attachment is associated with cognitive functioning in older couples. The findings have been published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

“I came across a book chapter that mentioned how attachment could be linked to Alzheimer’s disease and I was hooked,” said study author Rebekka Weidmann, a postdoctoral fellow at the Close Relationships Lab at Michigan State University.

“The idea that what was going on in the romantic couple could be associated with cognitive decline in later adulthood was very fascinating to me. So I emailed Prof. Chopik — an attachment expert — to ask if he was interested to collaborate on a study on attachment and cognitive health. Luckily he was and we planned and conducted the ‘Attachment and Neurodegenerative Disease’ study, which provided the data for the current article.”

A large body of research has demonstrated 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 am afraid my partner may abandon me,” while avoidantly attached individuals agree with statements such as “I don’t feel comfortable opening up to my partner.”

The researchers had 1,043 couples (who had been together for at least six months) complete assessments of romantic attachment, cognitive impairment, dementia symptoms, memory performance, stress, and relationship satisfaction. The participants were 64.7 years old on average, and couples had been together for an average of 35.8 years.

Weidmann and Chopik found that insecure attachment was associated with higher stress, and higher stress was linked to greater cognitive impairment for both the participants themselves and their partners.

More anxiously attached participants tended to report more cognitive impairment, including greater skill loss and worse memory for recent events. Anxious attachment, however, was unrelated to dementia symptoms or memory performance. Avoidantly attached participants, on the other hand, did not show a tendency for cognitive impairment. However, the partners of avoidantly attached individuals were more likely to report cognitive impairment and demonstrate worse memory performance.

“The take-away message from the study is that insecure attachment is differently linked to cognitive health, depending on if you look at anxious attachment or avoidant attachment,” Weidmann told PsyPost. “Anxiously attached people tend to have lower self-rated cognitive health, while partners of avoidantly attached people tend to have lower self-rated cognitive health but also fare worse in an objective memory task. These effects are not completely explained by relationship satisfaction, hinting to the possibility that there are other things going on in the couple that link insecure attachment to their cognitive health.”

The researchers controlled for a number of factors known to influence cognitive functioning and romantic attachment, including education levels, income, body mass index, relationship length, and general health. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“The major caveat is that it was a cross-sectional study,” Weidmann explained. “Even though the sample was very large, and we measured cognitive health in many different ways, we still know little about the directionality of effects. Does cognitive health decline because of the insecure attachment of romantic partners, or is it that people grow more insecurely attached because of their and their partner’s cognitive decline? These are questions that need to be addressed in the future.”

The study, “Romantic attachment, stress, and cognitive functioning in a large sample of middle-aged and older couples“, was authored by Rebekka Weidmann and William J. Chopik.

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