AARP Eye Center
On Thursday, May 21 AARP presented an in-depth virtual conversation to release the report “It’s Time to Act: The Challenges of Alzheimer’s and Dementia for Women.” The report is a collaborative effort between AARP and the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, along with leading brain health researchers and policy advocates from around the world, with support from AARP Foundation’s A. Barry Rand Fund for Brain Health Research. Listen to a replay of the event here.
Roughly 5.8 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer's disease, and two-thirds of them are women. By 2050, the number of Americans living with Alzheimer's is expected to skyrocket to 13.8 million, according to a new report from the AARP-founded Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). And more than 9 million of them will be women.
If you're surprised by the disease's gender discrepancy, you're hardly alone. “People just don't think about the fact that women are disproportionately affected by dementia,” says Kristine Yaffe, M.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.
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Dementia isn't a specific disease but rather a group of symptoms related to a decline in memory, thinking and social abilities to the extent that it interferes with someone's ability to function on a daily basis. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, but there are others, and “women shoulder a wildly disproportionate burden in every single one of these diseases, robbing them of independence, memories, and in many cases, their self-identity,” the GCBH report states.
This burden comes in two forms. First, women are more likely than men to develop dementia. Currently, a woman's lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's disease (after age 45) is approximately 1 in 5; for men, it's 1 in 10.
How women can reduce risks
- Exercise regularly.
- Stimulate your brain with puzzles, books and games.
- Stay socially connected.
- Relieve your stress.
- Get plenty of good-quality sleep.
- Consume a balanced diet; Mediterranean-style is optimal.
- Protect your head from injury with a helmet when biking or skiing.
- Control chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Women are also more likely to fill the role of caregiver for loved ones with dementia, which can take a toll on their financial, physical and mental well-being. According to the GCBH report, women make up more than 60 percent of dementia caregivers — and many more will take on that role as the population of dementia patients increases in the next few decades.
Not just a matter of age
Why are women at greater risk for dementia? It's a simple question with complex answers — and many unknowns.
For decades, experts assumed the increased prevalence of Alzheimer's disease among women was a consequence of their living longer than men. And while that may be partially true — given that advancing age is the primary risk factor — it's not the only reason.
"The social and environmental influences on health play a huge role in brain health for women,” notes Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy and brain health at AARP and executive director of the GCBH. “Women face more challenges due to lower educational levels, they have fewer economic resources, they provide more caregiving for their families and they experience more stress — and these factors can have an effect on the risk of cognitive decline.”
A woman's reproductive history — including the age at which she got her first menstrual period, how many successful pregnancies she had, and the age at which she reached menopause — may play a role in her risk of developing dementia. While the GCBH report acknowledges that more research needs to be done to investigate the effects of pregnancy and childbearing on a woman's risk of developing dementia, some research already suggests that women who have three or more children have a 12 percent lower risk of dementia compared to women who have one child.