Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=220985
Story Retrieval Date: 12/21/2014 5:14:07 PM CST
Vince Alongi / Foter.com
Alzheimer’s disease disproportionately impacts women.
Breast cancer is one of the most well-known disease impacting women thanks to the "pink ribbon" campaign, but Alzheimer’s disease could be following suit.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. The disease also impacts women indirectly, according to the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md. Many women become the primary caretakers of loved ones with the illness.
“The average American woman will spend about 17 years raising children and 18 years caring for parents. Frequently, women's caregiving duties will extend to the parents of her husband as well,” said Melanie Adams, director of education and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago.
The larger proportion of women with the disease is sometimes explained by the fact that women live longer than men, according to a study from the Rush Institute on Healthy Aging published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The association’s 2013 Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures reports that lower education levels could be associated with a higher prevalence of Alzheimer’s. Some researchers believe more years of education increases connections between neurons in the brain compensating for early brain changes. Thus, women who decide not to pursue careers or higher education could be more susceptible.
“The longer life expectancy of women is a huge contributing factor to this, but there is much more,” Adams said. She added that the burden of caregiving while juggling a career takes its toll on women.
Dementia is an umbrella term describing a variety of diseases and conditions that develop when nerve cells in the brain die or no longer function normally, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s is a subset of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
The association projects that by 2025, the number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is expected to increase by 40 percent. Longer life expectancies and aging baby boomers largely influence this estimate.
While Alzheimer’s has a clear impact on its victims, it also takes it toll on families.
Paul Thayer, 45, understands the trials of living with a loved one with Alzheimer’s. His 85-year-old mother lived with him, his wife and two children in their home in the western suburban Woodridge. A team of female home-care nurses gave his mother round-the-clock-care until Thayer’s family decided to move her to a nursing home recently.
“She lived with me for four years, and it’s had its share of challenges,” Thayer said. He added that her disease increased the stress level on the family. “Some days [the stress level] was higher than a 10,” he said.
The decision to move his mother to a nursing home was difficult for Thayer and his family, but he said it has been good for her. “She is doing a lot better, having to do interactive things with people her age,” he said.
Thayer’s paternal grandmother and maternal aunt also had Alzheimer’s and died from the disease. This agrees with some theories holding that Alzheimer’s is genetic.
Stanford University Medical Center researchers conducted a study in 2012 that found women with a single copy of the APOE-4 gene, a gene inherited by a parent, were more likely than men with a single copy of the APOE-4 gene to test positive for two known biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease. This may help explain why more women than men develop the disease, the study's senior author Dr. Michael Greicius said in a report on Stanford's website.
“While there is a genetic component to Alzheimer’s disease risk factors, it is not what most people think,” Adams said. She noted that there is no definitive genetic test for late onset Alzheimer’s, which accounts for over 95 percent of all cases. While some people believe Alzheimer’s “runs in the family” there is only a genetic marker correlated with an increased risk of late onset Alzheimer’s. The APOE-4 gene is not always present in all cases, she said.
“One thing that definitely does tend to ‘run in families’ is diet and lifestyle, and these can be either healthy or not. Managing these risk factors is something that we can do, and where we should focus our time and energy until more definitive research tells us otherwise,” Adams said.