November is known as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, so we’re taking some time to talk about why this disease tends to affect women more than men. Alzheimer’s remains the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and these numbers only seem to be getting worse. Between 2000 and 2017, deaths from heart disease have decreased by about 9%, while deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 145%.
New research is painting a clearer picture as to why women tend to be more at risk of getting Alzheimer’s than men. Let’s take a closer look at this issue and how women can protect themselves.
Why Are Women More at Risk Than Men?
For years, the healthcare community wasn’t sure why women are more at risk than men when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease. According to recent statistics, nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. Of the 5.6 million people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s in the United States, 3.5 million are women. Research suggests that women may be more at risk since they generally live longer than men. The risk of Alzheimer’s increases as we age, which means women are more likely to have the disease than men.
However, a new report from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) suggests there may be more to the story. It’s considered the first ever large-scale study of reproductive history and dementia risk in women.
The study suggests women may be more at risk due to biological or genetic variations, or even different life experiences, such as education, occupation or rates of heart disease. The number of months a woman is pregnant and the number of children they have can affect their risk of Alzheimer’s. The researchers found that women in the study with three or more children had a 12% lower risk of dementia compared to women with one child. These women continued to be at lower risk of dementia after adjusting for additional mid- and late-life risk factors, such as body mass index and stroke history. The report also found that each additional miscarriage was associated with a 9% increased risk of dementia, compared to those women who reported no miscarriages.
On average, women were 13 when they had their first menstrual period and were 47 at natural menopause. Additionally, women who indicated having their first menstrual period at age 16 or older were at 31% greater risk than those who reported having their first menstrual period at 13. Compared to women who experienced natural menopause after age 45, those who experienced natural menopause at 45 or younger were at 28% greater dementia risk after adjusting for demographics.
The study also suggests that hormone therapy may not play as much of a role as previously thought. Women who had initiated hormone therapy between ages 50-54 saw no negative effects, while those who initiated hormone therapy between ages 65-79 saw reductions in global cognition, working memory and executive functioning.
The report also suggests that women may mask the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s Disease, thanks to their advantage in verbal memory. Women appeared to sustain their cognitive performance in early stages of disease more so than men. This may explain why women tend to experience a more rapid decline across a wide range of cognitive abilities after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Women as Alzheimer’s Caregivers
Alzheimer’s can also affect female caregivers. With the proper care, those with Alzheimer’s can live for years or even decades, but caring for all these patients is taking a toll on the country and the U.S. healthcare system. Alzheimer’s caregivers have provided an estimated 18.5 billion hours of care, valued at nearly $234 billion. More than three in five unpaid Alzheimer’s caregivers are women, including daughters and wives, and much of this care goes unpaid. Studies show female caregivers may experience higher levels of depression and impaired health than their male counterparts.
Alzheimer’s remains a devastating disease that affects large portions of the population, including women and older patients. While more research needs to be done, these findings challenge our ideas of Alzheimer’s and why women tend to be more at risk than men. Women of all ages should know their risks, so they can start screening for the disease as early as possible.
Celebrate Alzheimer’s Awareness Month by sharing this information with your patients, colleagues and loved ones.