FORGET-ME-NOT: Women and Alzheimer's Diseaseby Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Many women suffer memory loss and/or confusion at some point in their lives, but as many as 5 million Americans suffer from a much more serious disease, Alzheimer’s. According to statistics from the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in older people. Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease; it is irreversible and causes a decline in memory and cognitive skills.
Alzheimer's disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. It is the only cause of death among the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured or even significantly arrested. Two-thirds of people over the age of 65 who have the disease are women. This is a startling statistic, and one that requires increased attention and research.
"Clearly, this is an illness of women more than men," said Victor Henderson, MD, MS, Professor of Epidemiology and Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. “In part, it has to do with the fact that women live longer than men. There are real differences in longevity.”
Researchers have long studied the relationship between the hormone estrogen and Alzheimer's disease, but the results have been inconclusive thus far. “There are other risk factors that may come into play,” said Henderson, “which can further explain why women may be predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease.” Some of these factors include: family history, genetics, and some evidence suggests heart disease.
One of the first signs of Alzheimer's disease may be forgetfulness and difficulty remembering newly learned information. But the disease gradually gets worse. According to the National Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago, other symptoms develop over time and may include:
- Challenges in planning or problem solving.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure.
- Confusion with time or place.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
- New problems with words in speech or writing.
- Misplacing objects and losing the ability to retrace steps.
- Decreased or poor judgment.
- Withdrawal from work or social activities.
- Changes in mood and personality.
In addition to women being affected by Alzheimer's disease more than men, they also bear the burden of caregiver more often than men, which compounds the social and psychological burden of disease on women.
"From my experience working with Alzheimer's patients, the burden does appear, in general, to fall more heavily on daughters," said Mitzi Liotta, MSW, a social worker specializing in dementia at the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn. "Sometimes the burden of disease manifests in other ways too like daughters micromanaging care, medication, and treatments. The toll can be great, emotionally, morally, mentally, spiritually and physically for these caregivers."
Despite what many think, Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging. Although the majority of people with Alzheimer's are 65 and older and increasing age is a well-established risk factor, Alzheimer's can and does affect younger people as well. Up to 5 percent of patients have early-onset disease which can manifest in younger people in their 40s and 50s.
Alzheimer's disease tends to run in families, especially early-onset disease. "In younger cases, about half have an autosomal dominant genetic pattern,” said Henderson. “There are other genes involved as well including Apolipoprotein E," and ongoing studies are looking into this relationship among others.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease but current treatments are designed to address symptoms and potentially improve the quality of life for sufferers. Since women are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's, focused attention needs to be applied to symptoms. Identifying the disease as early as possible ensures a better care plan for all those affected.
Jennifer Wider, M.D., is a medical advisor for the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) www.swhr.org, a national non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., widely recognized as the thought leader in research on sex differences and dedicated to improving women’s health through advocacy, education, and research.
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