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Why Are Women at Higher Risk for Alzheimer’s?

Inside the biological and genetic factors that affect women most

   

At least two-thirds of the 5.8 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women. That startling statistic is part of an upcoming new report titled “It’s Time to Act: the Challenges of Alzheimer’s and Dementia for Women,” from AARP and the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, that carries a sobering message: Women are far more likely than men to suffer from Alzheimer’s — and not just because women live longer. A raft of new data details the ways that women’s bodies and brains may predispose them to dementia.

“The most important finding has been the discovery that Alzheimer’s is not a disease of old age,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The disease starts with negative changes in the brain that can happen years, and sometimes even decades, before the clinical symptoms emerge.” 

This is especially true for women, who develop Alzheimer’s disease earlier than men, Mosconi has found through years of brain imaging studies. “Hormone declines that lead to menopause can accelerate brain aging in women and potentially kick-start the predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

The gene APOE4, which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, may be a particular danger for women, research shows. Women between 65 and 75 with APOE4 have a higher risk than men in that age group who have the gene, according to the GCBH report. And tau, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s, was distributed more widely in women’s brains than in men’s, a Vanderbilt University study found.

“We think there’s the possibility that it’s easier for tau pathology to spread in women than in men,” says study author Sepideh Shokouhi, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University.

The upside: Science is also revealing ways for women to prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. When it comes to diets, the Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes lean protein, particularly fish, whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and olive oil — seems to work best for women. “We have shown that the brain of a 60-year-old woman on the Mediterranean diet looks five years younger than that of a 50-year-old woman on the Western diet,” Mosconi says. Scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to prove that the Mediterranean diet will help prevent Alzheimer’s, but it’s clearly a heart-healthy diet and there is ample evidence that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Mosconi also touts disease-fighting antioxidants in foods like berries — particularly goji and blackberries — citrus fruits and even espresso, in moderation. Coffee has “the highest antioxidant power of all beverages,” she says.

Physical activity helps both men and women prevent dementia, though it seems more beneficial for women, Mosconi says. Consistency is key, particularly for women after menopause, so it's important to find a pleasurable, sustainable workout and stick with it. Mosconi’s suggestions include yoga, Pilates and walking. Sleeping well and reducing stress are also beneficial for your brain.

“These lifestyle changes are known to reduce the risk of dementia later in life, and to lower the risks and complications of so many additional health issues to boot,” Mosconi says. “It’s a win-win.” —Beth Howard

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Membership Expires: Renew

Why Are Women at Higher Risk for Alzheimer’s?

Inside the biological and genetic factors that affect women most

   

At least two-thirds of the 5.8 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women. That startling statistic is part of an upcoming new report titled “It’s Time to Act: the Challenges of Alzheimer’s and Dementia for Women,” from AARP and the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, that carries a sobering message: Women are far more likely than men to suffer from Alzheimer’s — and not just because women live longer. A raft of new data details the ways that women’s bodies and brains may predispose them to dementia.

“The most important finding has been the discovery that Alzheimer’s is not a disease of old age,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The disease starts with negative changes in the brain that can happen years, and sometimes even decades, before the clinical symptoms emerge.” 

This is especially true for women, who develop Alzheimer’s disease earlier than men, Mosconi has found through years of brain imaging studies. “Hormone declines that lead to menopause can accelerate brain aging in women and potentially kick-start the predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

The gene APOE4, which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, may be a particular danger for women, research shows. Women between 65 and 75 with APOE4 have a higher risk than men in that age group who have the gene, according to the GCBH report. And tau, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s, was distributed more widely in women’s brains than in men’s, a Vanderbilt University study found.

“We think there’s the possibility that it’s easier for tau pathology to spread in women than in men,” says study author Sepideh Shokouhi, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University.

The upside: Science is also revealing ways for women to prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. When it comes to diets, the Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes lean protein, particularly fish, whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and olive oil — seems to work best for women. “We have shown that the brain of a 60-year-old woman on the Mediterranean diet looks five years younger than that of a 50-year-old woman on the Western diet,” Mosconi says. Scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to prove that the Mediterranean diet will help prevent Alzheimer’s, but it’s clearly a heart-healthy diet and there is ample evidence that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Mosconi also touts disease-fighting antioxidants in foods like berries — particularly goji and blackberries — citrus fruits and even espresso, in moderation. Coffee has “the highest antioxidant power of all beverages,” she says.

Physical activity helps both men and women prevent dementia, though it seems more beneficial for women, Mosconi says. Consistency is key, particularly for women after menopause, so it's important to find a pleasurable, sustainable workout and stick with it. Mosconi’s suggestions include yoga, Pilates and walking. Sleeping well and reducing stress are also beneficial for your brain.

“These lifestyle changes are known to reduce the risk of dementia later in life, and to lower the risks and complications of so many additional health issues to boot,” Mosconi says. “It’s a win-win.” —Beth Howard