Alzheimer's Risk Higher for Women: Why?

It’s been known for years that women are more at risk for Alzheimer’s disease than men. Now there’s even more evidence of gender differences. A new study has found that among those who've been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), women show a much faster rate of memory loss than men.

The 2015 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference took place recently in Washington, D.C. While many topics were covered, including some drugs that are showing promise, this study about women has attracted its share of attention.

Earlier studies showing that more women developed Alzheimer’s than men concluded that this statistic simply reflected the fact that women live longer than men. Since age is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, it would stand to reason that more women would develop the disease.

However, there’s more to the problem than simply living longer. According to the Alzheimer's Association 2014 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report, a woman's estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's at age 65 is one in six, compared with nearly one in 11 for a man.

Not only are women more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, they are also much more likely to be Alzheimer’s caregivers. It seems likely that the stress and isolation of caring for a spouse or parents who have Alzheimer’s might be one reason for women developing the disease as well as having a more rapid decline.

One wild card for researchers is that women tend to report health issues earlier than men. Men may develop cognitive issues but many are less proactive about seeing a doctor or reporting problems. They then die of heart issues or another health problem and therefore aren’t counted in the statistics as having cognitive decline.

However, a series of new studies is showing that there's more to gender differences than previously thought. Some studies point to estrogen and genetic predisposition. Other studies show that older women who undergo surgery with anesthesia have a greater rate of cognitive decline than men. Additionally, an abnormal protein associated with Alzheimer's can build up in the brain more quickly in women than in men. Taken together with the news that women with MCI suffer memory loss significantly fast than men, these differences are disturbing.

The combined study findings highlight another reason for the urgency that lies behind Alzheimer’s research. Studying how gender differences matter when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease may eventually help shed light on other gender specific health issues, as well.

What can we do?

We can maintain a healthy lifestyle. Last year's International Alzheimer's Conference declared that one in three cases of Alzheimer's may be lifestyle related. Exercise, a healthy diet and staying active mentally and socially all contribute to better aging. A healthy lifestyle may help stave off symptoms of cognitive decline even if it doesn't entirely prevent Alzheimer's in the later years.

Additionally, women need to take part in Alzheimer’s studies so that we are well represented when new drugs or other therapies are tested. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsors ongoing clinical trials and is always looking for participants.

The NIH needs healthy people as well as those with signs of cognitive decline. Go to the National Institutes of Health Clinical Research Trials website and see if there’s something that interests you. Taking part in clinical studies, no matter how small your part is, can help limit the feeling of helplessness that we can sometimes feel in the face of this most dreaded disease.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at