If it seems like you know more women who have Alzheimer’s than men, you aren’t alone. Research shows that almost two-thirds of seniors who have the disease are female. While both men and women can develop Alzheimer’s disease, women seem to be at higher risk. But are they really?
It’s a question that’s being looked at carefully by a variety of researchers. While one reason may be the result of women living longer, scientists are exploring other risk factors, too.
Men, Women, and Alzheimer’s Disease
1. Are men with Alzheimer’s being misdiagnosed?
While there are symptoms many people with Alzheimer’s disease experience, such as loss of abstract thought and impaired verbal skills, other signs of the disease aren’t as common. In a study of 1,600 people, men with Alzheimer’s tended to have fewer of the most common symptoms of the disease. This led researchers to wonder if men are being misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all?
The study revealed that men with Alzheimer’s were less likely to show damage to the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory. Men were, however, more likely than women to develop aphasia, a condition linked to language problems. They also had greater incidences of corticobasal degeneration, which leads to mobility and movement challenges.
2. Older men may be healthier and at lower risk.
Another study looks at the question about men, women, and Alzheimer’s a little differently. They believe the differential diagnosis might be due to a “survival bias.” Middle-aged men have a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared to women of the same age. Men who live beyond the age of 65 may be healthier overall, lowering their risk of Alzheimer’s when compared with similarly aged women.
3. Alzheimer’s symptoms progress more slowly in men.
Duke University Medical Center conducted research to address the issue as well. They discovered another interesting reason that women may be at higher risk for Alzheimer’s—the rapid disease progression in women.
This longitudinal study showed that females with Alzheimer’s declined at twice the rate of their male peers. Researchers suggest the men’s slower decline may prevent them from being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or a similar form of dementia until the disease has progressed or the men are much older.
4. Some genetic risk factors may be less harmful for men.
The same Duke University study mentioned above also found a difference in disease progression among men and women who had the APOE-e4 genotype. This genetic variation is one that researchers previously linked to Alzheimer’s risk. While scientists don’t yet understand why it creates a higher risk factor for women, they believe it may be the result of how the APOE-e4 genotype interacts with estrogen.
Gender and Alzheimer’s Research Continues
The Alzheimer’s Association brought together leading experts in the field of biological sex and Alzheimer’s to tackle this issue in more detail. This think tank, dubbed the “Gender Vulnerability Related to Alzheimer’s Disease” identified research gaps that needed to be addressed:
- Underlying biological mechanisms
- Role of hormonal factors
- Impact of lifestyle choices
To help advance these issues, the Alzheimer’s Association announced the new Sex and Gender in Alzheimer's (SAGA) grant funding program.
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