In the UK, 65 per cent of individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease are women, making it the most common cause of death for females. But up until now, it has not been entirely clear why one gender is more likely to develop the disease than the other.
Scientists at a number of institutions have looked into the reasons and presented their findings at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles. It turns out there’s not just one answer, but a combination of factors relating to genetic, anatomical and social influences.
It has long been supposed that because the risk of developing dementia increases with age, the mere fact that women tend to live longer than men is responsible for increased diagnoses in females. The latest research, however, has uncovered more complex explanations.
Firstly, Vanderbilt University explained that the neurons in the brain where Alzheimer’s-causing proteins are found offer a clue. These tangles of protein appear to spread differently in the brains of women than men’s. Positron emission tomography scans used by the researchers allowed them to map the spread of tau proteins in the two sexes and found evidence it was more widespread in women.
Scientists from the University of Miami spoke at the conference about how a number of genes and genetic variants seem to affect both genders differently when it comes to Alzheimer’s. More research needs to be completed into this area, but the early stages suggest it’s an important factor in the wider picture.
Dr Jana Voigt, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said of the study: “Understanding which genes are associated with Alzheimer’s risk just in men and just in women may help us to develop methods to more accurately identify who is at risk of developing the disease.”
An interesting insight on social factors and their effect on Alzheimer’s development came from the University of California Los Angeles. Its research was conducted on 6,300 women born between 1935 and 1956 and found that those who hadn’t worked had faster memory decline as they aged.
Measuring the memory in these women between the ages of 60 and 70 showed that performance dipped 61 per cent faster in married mothers who had never had a job. This was in comparison to married mothers who had continued to be employed into middle age.
Dr Voigt added: “While future studies need to explore links between employment and brain health, these initial findings support ongoing efforts to increase the number of women entering or staying in the workforce.”
Despite Alzheimer’s being the most common form of dementia, still relatively little is known about it. Scientists across the world are working to uncover its secrets and some day find a cure, as the number of people suffering from the neurodegenerative disease continues to rise.
At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, just a number of treatments that work to slow the condition if it is diagnosed early. Meanwhile, doctors advise preventative measures, such as a healthy lifestyle, are the best way to beat dementia as an individual ages.