Women and Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer's disease can impact anyone. Research, however, indicates that women may be at a higher risk than men. Two facts to consider:
- Women over the age of 60 are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as they are to develop breast cancer. There are survivors of cancer but there are not yet survivors of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Two thirds of the population living with Alzheimer’s disease are female.
What makes women more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease than men? The previous thinking was because women simply lived longer than men. However, recent research suggests alternative explanations.
Why women are more at risk for Alzheimer's disease
Advances in science and technology have allowed investigators to discover important differences between women and men with Alzheimer's. These findings are changing our basic understanding of the disease.
According to recent studies, women:
- appear to have increased genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease compared with men.
- may be more susceptible to some aspects of disease progression.
- may also be more resistant to experiencing the symptoms of the disease.
The explanation as to why women are at increased risk of Alzheimer's disease is complex, and may include a variety of factors – biological, genetic and social.
Brain imaging has shown that toxic tau protein, a hallmark sign of the disease found in the brain, spreads faster and more easily in a woman’s brain and is dispersed more widely. A study from the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center identified that the structure of tau networks is different in men and women. Women have more “bridging regions” that connect various areas of the brain. These bridging regions may be what is allowing tau to spread faster and easier in women, accelerating the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, brain imaging by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, shows that women’s brains metabolize sugar more effectively than men. Sugar is the brain’s main energy source. While this would appear to be an advantage, it is possible that women are being diagnosed with memory loss later in the disease process, because their brains are better able to mask the symptoms of the disease. Women also have higher verbal skills, which result in better performance on the verbal portion of cognitive tests. This may result in a delayed diagnosis until Alzheimer’s disease is further along in its course.
Researchers at the University of Miami have determined that there appear to be specific genes related to disease risk by sex. This means certain genes may present a risk for Alzheimer’s only to men, while others only to women.
Researchers at Stanford University are studying individuals with a certain Alzheimer’s risk gene known as ApoE-4. They found that women who carry a copy of the gene are nearly twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as women without the risk gene. But men who carry the gene are at only slightly higher risk than men without it. More studies are underway to determine how these risk genes influence the disease process in relation to Alzheimer’s disease.
Finally, social factors may play a role in women’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. There has been discussion about the traditional role of women in past generations and how that may have contributed to the disproportion in Alzheimer’s between the sexes. Previous generations of females were not given the same access to education, employment, and athletics as men.
Education is an important factor in terms of Alzheimer’s disease risk. More education is known to reduce one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease (a concept called “cognitive reserve”). Lower education has more recently been identified as an early-life risk factor for later-life Alzheimer’s disease.
One additional thought is that it is traditionally the women’s role to act as caregivers to both children and the elderly. The level of stress that they may experience as a result could possibly influence their risk level.
How women can reduce their risk for Alzheimer's disease
Taken in total, these factors may be impacting the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in women. To reduce your risk, live a heart- and brain-healthy lifestyle to help live your best life. That includes:
- eating a nutritious and balanced diet
- regular exercise
- management of physical and mental health concerns
- restful sleep
- social engagement and staying connected to friends and family
- a habit of lifelong learning
About the Author:
Jonathan Drake, MD
Dr. Jonathan Drake is associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital, and specializes in aging and dementia. His clinical and research interests are in the early detection and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.