Women's Health and Alzheimer's Disease
There’s new evidence on why women are more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Women generally live longer than men. It was believed that since they lived longer it was inevitable that they would develop Alzheimer’s disease more often than men. Men died sooner from other medical issues.
That belief is now being challenged. Women may be genetically more disposed to this medical problem but here’s what researchers are finding. . .
Scientists are now zeroing in on structures in women’s brains that make them more vulnerable to debilitating memory loss. They haven’t completely explained this vulnerability, but they understand a lot more about it than they used to. They've also found plenty of reason to argue that women have a greater need to lead a lifestyle that lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Risks Unique to the Female Brain
The statistics on Alzheimer’s in women suggest:
· As a woman enters her sixties, she has twice the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease than she has of getting breast cancer.
· Women represent 64 percent – nearly two-thirds -- of the people in the United States today who have Alzheimer’s. Men account for only 36 percent.
· When a man reaches age 65, he has a nine percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s during his lifetime. Women run twice that risk.
If you’ve been following the research on Alzheimer’s, you know that science is still dim about the physical developments in the brain that are the true root cause of the disease. But the difference between men and women may have to do with those perennial suspects, beta and tau proteins.
The well-known beta-amyloid plaque and tau tangle theories have been under fire lately and for good reason. The accumulation of these toxic proteins among the brain cells is sometimes associated with dementia, but not always, and meanwhile many people with the plaques and tangles die with full possession of their memory and cognitive abilities.
They are gaining a better understanding of the toxic proteins.
The initial buildup of these proteins is not a sure sign that a person will develop Alzheimer’s, but now there are new findings that suggest they play a role. Meaning that there may be some life in the plaques-and-tangles theory after all.
The proteins show up in two stages. The first consists of the spread of beta-amyloid. The second results in tau protein. The initial amyloid may not pose a problem – plenty of people live with amyloid in their brains and don’t suffer memory problems. But when the tangles of tau appear, they destroy neurons, and that is what destroys your mental abilities.
According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, tau can spread through the brain like an infection, spreading from neuron to neuron, converting other proteins into messy tangles that can kill off neurons.
Some confirmation came when the Vanderbilt researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to analyze how tau spreads through the brain. They found that the architecture of women’s brains makes the spread of tau go more easily and rapidly than it does in men’s brains.
Scientist have noted that women’s brains have more “bridging regions” that put them at greater risk of widespread neuronal damage.
There are also other circumstances that put women’s brains at risk:
· Research in Germany shows that middle-aged women are protected from brain problems by the estrogenic hormone called estradiol. But after menopause, the decline in this hormonal protection puts them at greater risk of Alzheimer’s and other brain problems.
· An analysis at UCLA shows that being a stay-at-home mom increases your risk of Alzheimer’s later in life and being a single mother further increases the risk.
But let’s look closer at these findings.
Men don’t have high levels of estradiol, so if this is a crucial factor, what’s protecting them? After all (It is true that hormone levels matter to brain health, in both sexes.)
Researchers at the University of California discovered a direct link between the loss of testosterone and the development of Alzheimer’s in men. Testosterone treatment has been shown to slow down the progression of A.D. in men.
As for stay-at-home and single mothers, there are so many sociological factors that relate to this, it would be irresponsible to cite it as proof of a gender-related difference in your risk of dementia. For one thing, it could be that more educated women are less likely to be stay-at-home moms, and it’s believed that the well-educated and highly intelligent are less likely to get dementia. Maybe it isn’t due to their intelligence level but maybe the fact that those who work are constantly learning new things in order to maintain their careers.
As for single moms, they have a whole raft of problems other women don’t have and those problems are not on the XX chromosome.
There are many, many factors at work here and getting back to those stats about how two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients are women, and an elderly woman is more likely to get the disease than a male of the same age – again, we don’t know enough to jump to these conclusions.
Men die younger for a variety of reasons, from heart disease to suicide to substance abuse. It could be that these other causes of death simply eliminate the men with dementia risk from the pool of possible dementia victims.
We don’t know enough. But the main discovery I mentioned above does, after all, point to a role for plaques and tangles, and if this turns out to be a distinct form of dementia, it appears women are more at risk of it.
In any case, women and men alike should take steps to prevent dementia. . .
One of the most important measures is to keep your weight down. Research shows that fat around the belly increases the danger of developing Alzheimer’s and the scientists in Germany who examined how menopausal reductions in estradiol threaten a woman’s brain also noted that visceral fat around the waist does the same thing.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. A study in Ireland (along with plenty of other research) shows these foods help preserve your cognitive health.
And of course, getting plenty of sleep and daily exercise is important to keep your brain in good shape. All these lifestyle factors boost your odds of keeping your brain healthy and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.