Women are more likely to experience and report memory complaints and far more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association (Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures).
There are 5.1 million people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s in the United States. 3.2 million of them are women. In addition, a woman’s estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s at age 65 is 1 in 6 (compared to 1 in 11 for men).
Based on these data, brain health is a critical concern for every woman. A cognitive evaluation work up can help patients and their families understand the extent of cognitive decline.
It is not yet fully understand why there is a sex difference. Some contributing factors may include:
- Average longer life expectancy
- Fluctuations in the level of hormone estrogen
- Estrogen’s regulation of the APOE4 gene
- Sex differences in heart health
- Overall differences in anti-inflammatory pathways
In addition, shorter length of a woman’s productive years is thought to be correlated with onset of cognitive decline.
It is not a surprise that as women reach menopause cognitive and mood changes are among the most common complaints due to changes in estrogen and other hormone levels. Seeking a hormonal balancing evaluation can provide insight into individual hormone levels. Some research suggests that levels may be adjusted through hormone supplementation. While there is some debate, estrogen supplementation may lower the risk of dementia if taken at menopause for a short period of time before changes in brain cells affecting memory and thinking occur.
Because of the delicate nature of hormone therapy, women should always consult their healthcare team prior to beginning any treatment.
Understanding the disproportionate impact that Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia have in women, it is important to be proactive about maintaining and improving brain health.
A few ways to reduce one’s risk are listed below.
- Exercise: Studies show that aerobic exercise for 30 minutes three to four days a week improves memory, brain function and physical fitness.
- Healthy dietary practices: A Mediterranean or MIND diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, whole grains and fish offers many heart-healthy and brain-healthy benefits.
- Heart healthy behaviors: Control of blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugars and smoking cessation can offer additional benefits for brain health and cognitive vitality.
- Avoiding head injury: Wearing a seat belt, bicycle helmet and avoiding falls that result in head injury is recommended.
- Enhancing mental activities: Reading, writing, learning a new language and other novel activities that stimulate the mind help to enhance cognitive agility improve functioning.
- Socializing: People who engage in regular social events and practices have better and more sustained cognitive functioning with age than those individuals who are more socially isolated.
- Sleep: Research is showing that sleep is an important and often neglected aspect of health. Seven to eight hours of sleep each night is thought to help minimize brain amyloid build up associated with Alzheimer’s dementia.