At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference earlier this month, presenters shared several research studies that may give insight into the differences between the sexes when predicting the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, the rate that it progresses and how resilient sufferers are.
It has long been known that women are at a higher risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease but, up until now, longer life expectancy among women has been frequently cited as the primary reason for this. This new research indicates that these answers may actually be found within differences in our brain chemicals and various lifestyle factors, including employment status early in life.
Findings from a study conducted at Vanderbilt University Medical Center found sex-specific differences in the spreading of abnormal tau protein, a toxic substance that is often associated with cognitive decline. Abnormal accumulation of this protein causes it to tangle, which leads to brain cell death. The study looked at how men and women’s brain regions connect differently, giving a possible reason as to why cognitive decline is more likely to occur in women.
In a separate study, researchers at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health conducted a study of all women to look at the relationship between marital status, parenthood and employment status early in life between ages 16 and 50, and the impact on cognitive decline and memory impairment later in life, between ages 60 to 70. One of the biggest findings from from this study was that women who never participated in the paid labor force, such as married mothers who stayed home, had a faster rate of cognitive decline compared to married mothers who participated in the labor force. This rate of decline decreased if the women in the study had held a paid labor position, even for a short period of time.
Even more sex-specific differences were found in a third study conducted by UC San Diego School of Medicine, where researchers looked at how men and women’s brains metabolize glucose differently. Women frequently outperform men on verbal memory tests, even in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which can delay treatment. The study found that, at early stages, women may be compensating for brain changes more effectively than men, and that this can possibly be linked to higher levels of brain glucose metabolism.
As more research is done on the causes and effects of memory impairment, we have more clues to what our loved ones and those in our care are experiencing, and why they are experiencing it. We also have more opportunities to expect the unexpected, prepare for complications that may arise and open our minds to new perspectives, including that we can’t stop, fix or change dementia.
Staying on the forefront of research improves our understanding of the disease and sets us up for success in caring for them so that they can still live happy and full lives.