The puzzle of dementia in women

Women make up a significant majority of people living with dementia today. In the US, for example, approximately two-thirds of the more than 6 million people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia are women.

While why behind this gender-based trend remain uncertain, research is being conducted to test many potential factors and factors.

Until we learn more, the signs and symptoms of dementia in women remain the same as anyone else’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Greater burden of dementia for women

Aside from the individual actually diagnosed, research also shows that women make up approximately 60 percent of the 11 million individuals who care for those with Alzheimer’s today. This compounds the ways in which dementia has a disproportionate impact on women’s lives.

“We know that this disease carries a greater burden on women,” says Heather Snyder, a molecular biologist and vice president of medical and scientific affairs at the Alzheimer’s Association. “[But] we can’t necessarily say that women are at greater risk of Alzheimer’s.

So far, potential sex-based causes of dementia may include total years of reproductive health, age at menarche, age at menopause, and total number of months spent pregnant for each individual.

“All of these can contribute to, or have been associated with, a greater lifetime risk of dementia,” Snyder says.

But more studies and trials are needed to understand how things like estrogen levels or the X chromosome itself it can intersect with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases that cause dementia.

Read more: Alzheimer’s disease is not the only cause of dementia

Women live longer

Some of the skewed numbers towards women may be due to the simple fact that women live longer on average than men. And the risk of dementia increases with age.

Specifically, some studies show that human life expectancy is average 8 percent longer for women compared to men. In the U.S., life expectancy for men is 73.5 years compared to 79.3 years for women, a difference of roughly six years, according to 2021 CDC Statistics

However, numerous studies have shown that this age difference is not the only factor that accounts for the trends and symptoms of dementia in women.

“It’s certainly a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole story,” Snyder says of life expectancy.

Read more: A second X chromosome may explain why women live longer than men

The main signs of dementia

The Alzheimer’s Association has compiled a research-based list of the top 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. This applies to early signs of dementia in women and anyone who has concerns about the disease.

Here are the warning signs to look out for from the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Memory loss disrupts everyday life
  • Challenges in planning or problem solving
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images
  • New word problems (speaking or writing)
  • Moving things around
  • Impaired judgment or poor decision making
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood or personality

Snyder adds that these symptoms can manifest differently from person to person. Therefore, it is important to watch for changes compared to an individual’s younger years and abilities.

“The idea is to be aware of your brain and your brain health,” Snyder says.

As one company executive said, early signs in them appear when they can’t identify specific words they routinely use in notes. Snyder says they called her husband to recall the words they described: “To them, that was an indicator that something was wrong.”

Gender and gender contribution to dementia

Many researchers have identified lack of studies investigating gender and sex-based differences in Alzheimer’s dementia and how it progresses.

The potential gender-based variables acc a 2018 study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, include biological or hormonal patterns, as well as systemic and sociocultural factors—such as access to education and economic stability.

As an example, observational data in multiple studies have shown that women who start hormone therapy at or before menopause have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s dementia than women who start hormone therapy later.

Snyder also says that various studies continue to investigate whether sex and gender biases have informed some of the medical tests currently being conducted to detect early dementia.

The rising cost of dementia

One thing is clear: medical solutions and improvements are needed to offset the rising cost of dementia in an aging population.

Just this month, the Alzheimer’s Association released new data on the costs of caring for people living with dementia.

That report shows that national spending is expected to reach $345 billion — an increase of $24 billion from just one year earlier.

Read more: Does exercise prevent dementia?

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