Older age not the only culprit for more incidence of Alzheimer’s among women, researchers say
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Researchers assumed that it’s because women tend to outlive men on average and older age is one of the risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s.
However, a recent study published in Neurology, “Sex-Driven Modifiers of Alzheimer Risk,” indicates there’s more to it than longevity.
Researchers found that hormones appear to make a difference in risk.
Though the study used a small sample — 85 women and 36 men — the results point to a higher number of vital biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease among women who have experienced menopause, whether natural or bilateral hysterectomy menopause.
This factor was identified as associated with Alzheimer’s biomarkers more than age, health history, and comorbidities that increase risk such as diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise. Women using estradiol hormone therapy exhibited fewer factors that indicate development of Alzheimer’s.
It’s still not clear why most women who transition through menopause will not develop Alzheimer’s and some will, nor is it clear if estrogen is a direct or indirect factor.
“One concept emerging is that a woman’s reproductive history has been correlated with Alzheimer’s risk,” said physician Anafidelia Tavares, senior director of program for the Alzheimer’s Association and statewide research liaison.
Women with multiple live births seem to have lower their risk of Alzheimer’s as do women with early onset menses and later menopause. Though this points to correlation with hormonal influences, Tavares said that more research is necessary to draw conclusions.
In addition, Tavares said that known factors such as more years of formal education and more challenging mental stimulation place women currently in their older years at a disadvantage. The traditional pattern for this generation of women was to get married out of high school, stay home to rear children and not engage in employment or much social interaction. Though currently, more women than men are enrolled in college, that was not the case 50 years ago.
Today’s young women may find in their older years that their higher education and opportunities for employment and mental engagement are protective. But other factors, such as delaying childbearing and limiting the number of children may mitigate the benefits of more intellectual stimulation. Tavares said that it’s hard to tell how these correlative factors will affect women.
“That’s why it’s important we have this research to understand the drivers and the increased risk in women,” Tavares said. “We need to look at the modifiable risk factors.”
Family history represents a non-modifiable risk factor.
“With neurodegeneration, it’s unknown why there’s a difference between women and men,” said Lauren Ashburn, licensed master social worker and director of education and training for the Alzheimer’s Association, Western New York Chapter in Amherst. “They can have the same risk genes, but it’s faster progressing in women than men.”
Alzheimer’s is present in one in nine people over 65; one in six of those over 75; and one in three over 85. Ashburn said that longevity is the greatest risk factor, but other factors influence likelihood, such as social influences.
Like Tavares, she pointed to the limited formal education most women received in the first half of the last century.
While nothing can change the genes you received, trying to mitigate the effects of their influence can help. Healthful choices may help reduce risk.
“The earlier you start, the better, but it’s never too late as far as healthy living,” Ashburn said. “There’s not a ton of research on socialization, but we know it has an effect.
“We know isolation increases our chances of developing Alzheimer’s. The earlier on in our life we can do it, the better. If you raised your kids and now you’re getting social, it’s better late than never. ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’ is so true. Challenge the brain as much as possible. More formal education builds a protective factor in the brain.”
Because of the brain and body connection, physical activity helps maintain brain health. In general, what is good for the heart is good for the brain when it comes to diet, exercise and stress.
Women tend to be the primary caregivers for both children and their elderly parents, in-laws and other relatives. This adds additional stress to their lives, along with the tendency for women to stretch themselves too thin to help others.
Tavares encourages lifestyle changes to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and improve overall health, including a healthful diet, tobacco cessation, prevention of brain injury (such as avoiding risky behaviors and wearing seatbelts and bike helmets), and engaging in regular physical activity.
“Staying socially engaged, treat depression, and get a good night’s sleep,” Tavares said. “These are brain-protective.”