Why are two out of three people struck by Alzheimer’s disease women?
That’s the question that drove journalist and author Maria Shriver to start the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM). The group is dedicated to raising awareness that women face a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and aims to fund women-based research for Alzheimer’s disease.
“Women’s research is way behind men’s research, and the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement sits there pushing. Because we can’t close the knowledge gap unless we do the research. And we can’t help women on the front lines of this disease without that research,” Shriver said at a WAM luncheon this week honoring new research grant recipients.
Shriver, 64, has spoken openly about her father Sargent Shriver’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and how it destroyed her “father’s beautiful brain.” But she soon noticed that when people shared their stories of loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease, the stories were disproportionately about women.
When Shriver pressed experts on why the brain disease seemed to affect so many more women, she was told it was because women live longer.
Not one to let a potentially important story go, Shriver partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association to look closer at this connection. The result was “The Shriver Report,” which confirmed that women were, in fact, being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease far more often than men. And it wasn’t just a factor of women living longer.
But no one knows exactly why Alzheimer’s disease ravages so many more female minds.
And many women and their families still don’t realize the seriousness of the risk. A woman in her 60s faces an estimated 1 in 6 lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. For breast cancer, the risk is 1 in 11, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Therefore, research is essential, WAM says.
Some of the early research projects receiving grants from WAM include:
- The gut microbiome’s role in Alzheimer’s. Harvard researcher Laura Cox is exploring how the natural bacteria in the digestive system (gut microbiome) might affect the development of Alzheimer’s, and whether adding more beneficial microbes could be a way to treat Alzheimer’s disease in women.
- Sex-based genetic analysis. Massachusetts General Hospital researchers Rudy Tanzi and Dmitry Prokopenko are mapping genetic markers based on gender and looking for genetic markers for Alzheimer’s disease on the female genome.
- Sudden hormonal shifts and Alzheimer’s disease. Lisa Mosconi, from Weill Cornell Medicine, is looking at how a rapid shift in estrogen levels might impact a woman’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Women in the study are being treated for other conditions, but a side effect of those treatments is early menopause. Mosconi will compare the brains of women before and after these treatments to see how a sudden loss of estrogen affects the brain.
- Sex-based brain differences. Using advanced imaging techniques, neuropsychologist Jessica Caldwell, from the Cleveland Clinic, is studying gender-based differences in the brain in people with memory issues and those without to gain a better understanding of what role gender plays in the brain.
- Alzheimer’s prevention and sex differences. Dr. Richard Isaacson, from Weill Cornell and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, has already published research based on a WAM grant that found women and men with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease can improve their memory and thinking skills on their own with changes in lifestyle. The current grant is to help build a consortium to see if these risk reduction techniques change based on gender, and if there is a way to optimize prevention methods by gender.
- Sex-based differences in severity of disease. Sarah Banks and Erin Sundermann, from the University of California, San Diego, are studying factors that may contribute to the more severe brain changes that seem to occur in women with Alzheimer’s compared to men. In particular, they will be looking at whether changes in sleep, diet and exercise are linked to greater inflammation in women with Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite the significant challenges that Alzheimer’s disease presents, Shriver said she remains hopeful, encouraged by the progress that has been made since her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2003.
“While we don’t have a cure, we do know so much more today about our brain health and what we can do to slow, if not prevent, Alzheimer’s disease in the future,” Shriver said.
Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease from the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement.
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