Women and Alzheimer’s: What’s your risk?

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF Founder and CEO, Ms.Medicine

Did you know that nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women? That means that of the 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s, 3.6 million are women. In fact, women over the age of 60 are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are to develop breast cancer.

Scientists are working to better understand why women have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s. One reason may simply be because women are more likely to live longer than men. There may also be biological or genetic differences between men and women that lead to women’s higher risk of developing the disease.

But, one area many researchers are studying is the relationship between gender inequality in our country and the rate of Alzheimer’s in women.

Understanding inequality’s impact on cognitive decline

Alzheimer’s disease impacts an individual’s cognitive ability. It refers to the progressive decline of memory and other mental functions, caused by changes in the brain. While researchers don’t know what brings about these changes, a combination of lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors can impact your brain health, and may influence your risk of Alzheimer’s.

Many of these factors, including the social and emotional determinants of brain health, uniquely impact women. Specifically – stress.

Women are more likely to be stressed than men. One study from the American Psychological Association found that 28% of women report having a great deal of stress, compared to 20% of men. Now, during the COVID-19 global pandemic, women are experiencing even more stress as they are often the ones juggling work from home, children’s virtual learning responsibility and household responsibilities.

Stress can cause inflammation in the brain which may increase a one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that certain stressful events aged the brain by 1.5 years for white and non-Black participants. Among Black participants, stressful events aged the brain by 4 years. (This may also account for why Alzheimer’s affects more Black individuals.)

Stress isn’t the only factor that can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s – and it’s not the only factor that disproportionately affects women. Social determinants of health include where you live, education level and your income. Women are more likely to live in poverty and have fewer resources to support them – which may ultimately affect their brain health.

Take control of your brain health

The statistics may paint a startling picture, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and improve your brain health. That includes making a healthy lifestyle a priority:

  • Eat healthy
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Lower alcohol intake
  • Get plenty of rest

Chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, may also increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Stay on track with check-ups with your provider to effectively manage and prevent these health conditions. 

Other ways you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s include spending time with loved ones and keeping your brain active. So, schedule that Zoom session with a friend, pick up the phone or finish that crossword puzzle to help keep your brain sharp.  If you’re concerned about your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or have experienced troubling cognitive symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

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