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Women and Alzheimer's Disease

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

According to the Alzheimer's Association, "a woman's estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's at age 65 is 1 in 5. As real a concern as breast cancer is to women's health, women in their 60s are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's during the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer."

Researchers have indicated that two of the main risk factors for developing Alzheimer's disease (AD) are age and gender. The incidence of the disease is higher in women than in men, and this cannot simply be attributed to the higher life expectancy of women versus men. Although life expectancy likely does play a role in the overall picture it could not be the only factor involved.

Two other notable factors have also been low educational attainment and lack of cognitive stimulation. It generally has been more difficult for women to acquire higher mentally stimulating jobs because they start to raise children or have other responsibilities. In my history of conducting neuropsychological assessments, there has been a notable amount of women who graduated from High School and then began having children which impacted their ability to secure further educational opportunities. Hopefully, now that women are having more educational opportunities than their parents and grandparents, that this will help lower their risk over time.

Researchers last year presented an update at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2018 in Chicago which highlighted the gender differences associated with dementia across the life course, including the first ever large-scale study of reproductive history and dementia risk in women. The researchers suggested:

  • "Associations between dementia risk and number of children, number of miscarriages, age at first menstrual period, and reproductive period (years between first menstrual period and menopause).

  • In a separate study, a correlation between cumulative months of pregnancy and Alzheimer’s risk.

  • Re-thinking the long held thought that hormone therapy negatively affects cognition.

  • A need for sex-based standards for cognitive assessments, to improve early detection in women."

Thus far, genetic studies have offered a notable account for the difference. Researchers from Stanford University studied over 8,000 people looking for a form of the gene ApoE-4, a gene that increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. They found that women who carry a copy of that particular gene variant were twice as likely to eventually develop Alzheimer’s as women without the gene. Men who had the gene were only at a slightly increased risk than men who did not have the gene. Researchers in the field have also raised the idea that some of increased risk may be related to how the gene interacts with estrogen, although future studies are needed to further study this.

Hopefully, we’ll be coming up with some good effective treatments in the near future, but until we do, it will be important for us to focus on modifiable lifestyle risk factors. It’s never too late to make changes and improve your brain.

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