We used to think that women were at higher risk for dementia simply because we tend to live longer than men. But the real story is so much more complicated than that.
You may know that dementia is the general term used to describe someone’s inability to remember, think or make decisions that impairs their every day activities. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) causes around 65-80% of dementia cases.
What we know now is that women are twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s dementia than men, even when accounting for age and lifespan. And we can also confirm that changes that are linked to Alzheimer’s dementia begin earlier in women’s brains. But the good news is that these changes don’t necessarily mean that they will get dementia for sure, and early intervention through lifestyle changes can prevent dementia.
In her book The XX Brain, author Dr Lisa Mosconi notes that statistically speaking, a 45 year old woman already has a one in five chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. As a 60 year old woman, I will be twice as likely to get dementia as I am to get breast cancer - even without any family history or gene markers.
Beyond the paper gown
I recently had a conversation that with my dear friend Dr Mitzi Krockover on her podcast Beyond the Paper Gown. I worked with Dr Krockover back in the early 1990s when she served as the founding Medical Director of the Iris Cantor UCLA Women’s Health Center. Since then she has continued to be a passionate advocate for women’s health concerns through her many roles as executive, clinician and educator.
In Brain Health Part 1: Love Your Body, Love Your Brain, we talk about women and caregivers as a high risk population for dementia. Females also outnumber male elder caregivers by a ratio of 2 to 1. Women caregivers have been found to be at increased risk for high blood pressure, poor immune function, heart disease, depression and anxiety. These health consequences have been attributed to poor self care and the burden of emotional and financial stress.
In Brain Health Part 2: What Every Woman Needs to Know, we cover the most common causes of dementia, as well as genetic and hormonal influences. Turns out that women’s brains are particularly vulnerable to hormonal changes around the time of menopause. The female hormone estrogen has a protective effect on brain health, and so we need to be particular cognizant of how to protect ourselves during that crucial milestone in our lives.
What we need
It’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to mitigate against our biological risk, women need to double down on dementia prevention practices like regular exercise, healthy nutrition, restful sleep, intentional stress reduction, and so on.
My whole life, I’ve seen my women role models and friends striving to DO more to achieve parity with men. But I’m finally beginning to see us ask ourselves if really it’s a matter of acknowledging the value that we bring, rather than purely focusing on doing more.
Women need to double down on dementia prevention practices
There are so many unanswered questions when it comes to women and brain health, it brings me back to the 4 Ways to Fight Dementia. I want to have compassion for myself as I face up to the harsh reality of what it means to be a woman with the risks I carry. I need to remain committed to finding the answers for myself, curious and open to conversation, and involved in community and clinical trials where possible.
I’m immensely grateful for Dr Krockover’s skilled journalistic approach, which put me at ease as I discussed some of the key concepts that are core to the Optimal Brain Performance (OBP) online course. Sign up to be on the waitlist and get extra brain health tidbits along the way to our launch events this summer!!