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Forget Me Not, Help Me to Remember: Protecting Women from Alzheimer’s Disease

By: Mary Lizabeth Aquavia, Medical Director, Women’s Health Program

May 8-14 is National Women’s Health Week and an opportunity to talk about the important topic of women and Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is an irreversible neurodegenerative condition that affects a significantly higher proportion of women than men. Nearly two-thirds of the more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s – or about 3.8 million individuals – are women. And more than 60% of Alzheimer’s or dementia caregivers are women.

In addition to being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, it’s important for women to know that there are steps they can take to delay the onset of the disease!

Why are women affected disproportionately?

The reasons for the discrepancy remain unclear. The prevailing explanation has been that women tend to live longer than men and older age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

But now, researchers are looking at other biological and societal factors. For example, they’re studying the female reproductive cycle to assess the risk of dementia and the age at which a woman has her first menstrual period, her age at menopause, and the time between her first period and menopause.

Sex-specific differences in the architecture of the brain are also being looked at.  Studies have found that women’s brains may be structurally more prone to speed the spread of a protein that entangles in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, interrupting the neurotransmitter and neuron firing that impacts memory.

Research also shows that women who participate in the labor force between early adulthood and middle age experience a slower memory decline in later life. This builds on previous research associating work and education with higher levels of cognitive engagement that seems to be protective against the onset of dementia.

Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of progressive dementia in older adults. Vascular dementia, caused by atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries that supply blood to the brain, and Lewy body dementia, which is associated with Parkinson’s disease, are second and third, respectively, and also irreversible. Some less-common dementias can be reversed with treatment.

Signs of Alzheimer’s to look for include:

  • Memory loss, usually noted by someone else
  • Difficulty communicating or finding words
  • Difficulty with visual and spatial ability such as getting lost while driving
  • Difficulty reasoning or problem solving
  • Difficulty handling complex tasks
  • Difficulty with organizing and planning
  • Difficulty with coordination and motor functions
  • Difficulty with balance and coordination
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Personality changes such as depression, anxiety, inappropriate behavior, paranoia, hallucinations, and agitation

Protecting yourself against Alzheimer’s

While age is the most important known factor for Alzheimer’s, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Know your family history. A small percentage of cases are related to genes that can be passed down from parent to child. See if genetic testing is available to you.
  • Exercise regularly. Research shows lack of exercise increases the risk of dementia. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
  • Eat healthy. While no specific diet is known to decrease your risk, research shows a greater incidence of dementia in people with an unhealthy diet than in those who follow a healthy Mediterranean-style diet emphasizing fresh produce, whole grains, nuts, seeds, etc.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking. Several studies have found that excessive drinking can increase your risk of dementia. Smoking damages the blood vessels, potentially triggering changes that can lead to Alzheimer’s.
  • Look after your heart. Atherosclerosis has been shown to increase risk so reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Manage your blood sugar levels. Diabetes may also increase your risk of dementia especially if your blood sugar is poorly controlled
  • Treat depression. While not yet well understood, late-life depression may increase the risk of dementia.
  • Avoid sleep aids. Some medications such as sleep aids like Benadryl and Advil PM can worsen your memory.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. If you snore loudly, you may have sleep apnea, which can put you at higher risk for dementia. See your doctor for a sleep study.
  • Don’t ignore hearing problems. People with hearing loss have greater risk of cognitive decline. Early treatment including use of hearing aids may help reduce that risk.
  • Take your vitamins! Some research suggests that people with low levels of vitamin D are more likely to develop Alzeimer’s and other forms of dementia. Taking vitamins D, B6, and B12 may help reduce your risk.
  • Stay mentally and socially active. More research is needed but keeping your mind active through mentally stimulating activities such as reading, solving puzzles, playing word games and memory training may help offset dementia and decrease its effects. Maintaining social interaction can also delay the onset.

If you have concerns about memory loss, see your doctor. You may be given a simple Mini Mental Status Exam to help determine whether you have abnormal cognitive decline, as well as a blood test to make sure there are no other reasons for your concerns. Some medications, such as Aricept and Namenda, are available to help reverse memory loss and delay the progression of dementia.

Remember: Reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s is yet another reason to make healthy lifestyle choices!