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Why Is Alzheimer's More Likely in Women?

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerSeptember 5, 2019

It’s no secret that women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers previously attributed this to the longevity of women, but scientists are finding that there may be other contributing factors to the disease.

Learn more about the new studies and what may be causing more women to suffer from Alzheimer’s. 

Alzheimer’s Is More Likely in Women

While Alzheimer’s is indiscriminate, recent studies have found that women are bearing a disproportionate amount of the Alzheimer’s burden:

  1. Aside from the fact that 60% of all Alzheimer’s caregivers are women, at the age of 65, women have a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer’s, compared to a 1 in 11 chance for men.
  2. Additionally, out of the 5 million people living with Alzheimer’s in the U.S., 3.2 million are women.
  3. Research has found that women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than to develop breast cancer.

Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said of these risks:

“There are enough biological questions pointing to increased risk in women that we need to delve into that and find out why. There is a lot that is not understood and not known. It’s time we did something about it.”

Taking action, the Alzheimer’s Association brought together 15 of the world’s leading scientists to look further into why Alzheimer’s is more likely in women, stating that “researchers are now questioning whether the risk of Alzheimer’s could actually be higher for women at any given age due to biological or genetic variations or differences in life experiences.”

Risk Factors Beyond Longevity

Until now, the gap had been largely attributed to the longevity of women, since age is the number one risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Roberta Diaz Brintona University of Southern California professor who studies gender differences said, “It is true that age is the greatest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease.” But she went on to say, “on average, women live four or five years longer than men and we know that Alzheimer’s is a disease that starts 20 years before the diagnosis.”

Thus far, genetic studies have offered a startling account for the difference. Researchers from Stanford University studied over 8,000 people looking for a form of the gene ApoE-4, a gene that increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. They found that women who carry a copy of that particular gene variant were twice as likely to eventually develop Alzheimer’s as women without the gene. Men who had the gene were only at a slightly increased risk than men who did not have the gene. While it is not clear why the gene poses such a drastic increase in risk, Brinton believes it may be how the gene interacts with estrogen. 

Another study suggests that it may be related to heart health. A study from Framingham, Massachusetts suggests that because men are more likely to die from heart disease in middle age, those men who live past 65 may have healthier hearts which may protect the brain from Alzheimer’s. These two diseases share many risk factors including high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.

Exactly why women are bearing the Alzheimer’s burden remains yet to be determined. Carrillo pointed out that 40 years ago, no one understood how heart disease affected women and says:

“How do we make sure we’re not making that mistake when it comes to Alzheimer’s?”

What do you think about the link between Alzheimer’s and women? Have you seen any other contributing causes that create an increased risk for the disease? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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