Of every three people in the United States living with Alzheimer’s, two are women. And, even factoring in women’s longer lifespans, they’re twice as likely as men to develop the disease.
But a recent poll indicated that many women don’t know about their elevated risk, nor what they can do to reduce it.
It’s time to shift that.
Studies show that brain changes quietly start to take place 10-30 years before symptoms of cognitive decline first appear. And women begin developing signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains at a younger age than men. So it’s important for women, especially those in their 40s and 50s, to know and discuss their risk factors with their doctors.
But women at any age can make lifestyle changes that help reduce their risk. And, even if a woman already has symptoms, those changes may slow their progression.
Other Facts about Women and Alzheimer’s
Advanced age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s and related dementias. And being female is the second.
For decades, though, women were banned from clinical research. Eventually, the National Institutes of Health mandated that women be included in clinical trials. Still, the data rarely is broken down by sex, says Lisa Mosconi, PhD, a neuroscientist and director of the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative.
“Out of all clinical trials of Alzheimer’s disease thus far, NONE has set out to examine the differences between men and women,” Mosconi says. “This is in spite of tons of data demonstrating the important role of female sex and hormones for Alzheimer’s.”
Women are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are breast cancer, she says, making Alzheimer’s a women’s health issue, too.
Perimenopause – the years leading up to a woman entering menopause – is a key time for a woman to discuss her risks with her medical team, because of the link between estrogen loss and the development of Alzheimer’s.
Studies show that estrogen is brain-protective. And when it dips due to menopause, women are more likely to experience insomnia, brain fog, anxiety, and depression. Estrogen, specifically estradiol, affects not only the reproductive tract. It also affects many other systems in a woman’s body, including the urinary, cardiovascular, skeletal, and muscular.
Researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center this spring received a grant to test a plant-based alternative to hormone therapy that may reduce symptoms of menopause and reduce risks of dementia.
But women should have conversations with their doctors about possible courses of action. Health issues may start to snowball in midlife. And other chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and depression increase the risks of cognitive decline.
Options for What to Do Next
Modifying risk factors such as hearing loss, smoking, physical inactivity, nutritional deficiencies, and social isolation could prevent or delay up to 40 percent of dementias, according to a 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. And newly added to the list is alcohol misuse and heavy drinking, which increase risks of dementia.
So what can you do?
First, educate yourself and investigate your own risks. Monitor your symptoms of perimenopause or menopause. And talk to your health care provider about those risks and how to reduce them.
Key areas for consideration include eating to benefit your brain, limiting alcohol and caffeine, prioritizing sleep in quantity and quality, managing stress, and engaging in physical activity. Brain engagement and social connections also play roles.
Once you know where you need to start making changes, begin creating or adding to your healthy lifestyle team. Changing habits can be easier and more fun when you partner with like-minded others. Start with one area of change. Seek support.
As you build your skills and confidence, you’ll be able to work on other goals.
Little steps add up to big steps.
Amy Hoogervorst, a national board-certified health and wellness coach, offers grace and space for a healthier you. She works 1:1 and in groups to help you create healthier habits that stick. Schedule a discovery call here to learn more about coaching with Amy.