Surprising Ways Alzheimer’s Impacts Women Differently Than Men

Surprising Ways Alzheimer’s Impacts Women Differently Than Men

Why women are often diagnosed late and other must-know facts.

While Alzheimer’s disease is common among both men and women—it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the US overall—its prevalence (the proportion of people within the population who have it) is much higher among women. In fact, about two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are female.

One possible reason for this is that women often outlive men, giving them a longer window of opportunity to develop Alzheimer’s, explains Margo Block, DO, a neurologist with privileges at Belton Regional Medical Center in Belton, Missouri, and an office in Independence, Missouri. Some experts point to additional, biological reasons for the difference in rates since studies have also found the following about women:

  • They have more amyloid plaques—proteins associated with the development of Alzheimer’s—in their brains. This was true across various stages of the disease and different age groups in a study involving about 1,000 people.
  • They have been found to experience mental decline at a rate almost two times faster than men.
  • They were more likely than men to develop long-term thinking problems after surgeries involving general anesthesia, according to another study.  

While more research is needed to determine exactly how sex and gender influence Alzheimer’s risk, genetics, hormones and gender-related stressors may all play a role. Dr. Block weighs in on some of the other unique ways Alzheimer’s impacts women.    

Women may be diagnosed late
Men are often diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more promptly than women, allowing them to receive treatment sooner.

So why are the signs often overlooked in women?

“Women are generally known for their advanced verbal skills,” says Dr. Block. “So there may be a significant amount of brain function loss before it becomes apparent to loved ones that something’s wrong.” Since screening tests are largely based on verbal memory skills, women may be able to mask their symptoms until they’re further along in the disease course, too.

Women may blame other conditions
Another reason women get diagnosed late: “Insomnia or depression may appear to cause memory problems when it’s actually Alzheimer’s,” says Block.

“I frequently see women complaining of mood issues or difficulty sleeping—moreso than their male counterparts," she adds. "Women may just assume ‘stress’ is the cause of their symptoms.”

Alzheimer’s and caregiving
Not only are women diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more often, they’re also more likely to care for someone with the condition. About 60 percent of unpaid caregivers are female. More specifically, the majority of caregivers are middle-aged females who often must balance the responsibilities of eldercare, childcare and work, along with financial planning and any household responsibilities.

That leaves little time for self-care, including counseling and medical appointments. Because they may not get prompt treatment for their own health needs, caregivers have about twice the rate of chronic illness, compared with the general population. They’re especially prone to depression and caregiver burnout.

Ripple effects
Since women often fill many roles, the entire family can be affected when a woman either develops Alzheimer’s or becomes a full-time caregiver. Family dynamics may change as a result, and other responsibilities can fall by the wayside, adding to the stress she already feels.

For both caregivers and women with Alzheimer’s, medical bills, plus time spent away from work can result in debt, loss of benefits and even job loss. One report found about twice as many women gave up their jobs than men in order to meet caregiving demands. Women were also twice as likely to lose their benefits and more likely to feel stigmatized at work because of their caregiving responsibilities.

Get help for these red flags 
“If a woman or her family members notice the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, they should ask for a screening examination from her primary care physician,” says Block. “If her doctor has concerns based on those results, she’ll likely be referred to a neurologist for further evaluation.”

Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience:

  • Mood swings or personality changes
  • Insomnia
  • Concentration problems
  • Trouble planning or making decisions
  • Difficulties storing new information

These red flags may be early signs of dementia, but they could also indicate mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI involves changes to thinking abilities that don’t always progress to Alzheimer’s. Some people with this condition may experience symptoms that stay relatively the same or improve over time.

Regardless of whether your symptoms are due to MCI, Alzheimer’s or another condition like depression, it’s essential to see your doctor right away. Doing so allows them to start testing your thinking abilities periodically. That can help them determine whether your symptoms are improving over time and can help ensure you receive the best possible treatment. 

While there’s no cure for Alzheimer's, there are medications that can help with the following aspects of the disease:

  • Ease its symptoms
  • Improve patients' quality of life
  • Help people stay independent for as long as possible

When treatment is delayed, Alzheimer’s may progress or worsen at a faster pace than it would with the right meds.

Caregivers need support
If you’re a caregiver, you don’t have to go it alone. Even if support’s lacking from your immediate circle, there are people and resources that can help.

Whether you’re caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or displaying symptoms yourself, it’s important to get help when you need it.

“I frequently hear women brush off their symptoms by saying things like, ‘Everybody my age has this, it’s normal,' or, 'Of course, I know the answer to that question,’” says Block.

But while facing your symptoms head-on may be intimidating, doing so can protect your quality of life and independence in the long run.

Read more from Dr. Block.

This content was updated on June 27, 2018. Medically reviewed in March 2018.

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