Alzheimer’s: A Woman’s Disease?
Women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are to develop breast cancer over their lifetime (Photo: iStock)
Women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are to develop breast cancer over their lifetime (Photo: iStock)

Alzheimer’s: A Woman’s Disease?

(September is World Alzheimer’s Month, a global campaign to raise awareness about the degenerative disease. This story is being published in that context.)

Anjum Gupta (name changed) furiously demands the car keys to drive to her daughter’s Marine Lines house in Mumbai. Her husband of 40 years, Prakash Gupta, reads quietly, unrelenting or unperturbed by her shouts and shrieks.

Anjum is 70 years old. Her daughter shifted base to US, almost 15 years back. Anjum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003.

In Alzheimer’s, or any other chronic debilitating disease, as the caregivers compassion recedes, the disease advances.

“What’s the point of arguing or even humouring her now? I’ve done all that, dealing with her irrational pleas and the absurd demands. But now she’s descended too deep in her illness. I love her but on most days she doesn’t know me. I saw her dissolve in front of my eyes.”–Prakash Gupta, 74 years old, caregiver to his Wife

There is a lot that is still mysterious about the human brain. 2/3rd Alzheimer’s patients are women (Photo: iStock)
There is a lot that is still mysterious about the human brain. 2/3rd Alzheimer’s patients are women (Photo: iStock)

New research published in the Alzheimer’s Disease International shows how common the plight confronting the Guptas is. Nearly two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients are women. Just why does the disease affect our mothers and sisters so much more than it affects the men of the house?

What Makes Women More Prone To Alzheimer’s?

Brain scan of an Alzheimer’s patient (Photo: iStock)
Brain scan of an Alzheimer’s patient (Photo: iStock)

Women are at the epicentre of the Alzheimer’s crisis.

One reason is age. On an average, women live for 81 years as compared to the average age of men, ie , 76 years. So there are far greater elderly women than men and that predisposes them to an Alzheimer’s risk.

But it is more complicated than that. Scientists are racing to see if age, gender and differences in brain structure have a role to play. Could the loss of oestrogen after menopause lead to deficits in brain metabolism and slow down cognitive abilities?

Even though Alzheimer’s takes away one person every four seconds, very little is known about the disease. The research says not only does the disease affect women disproportionately, it also hits them harder:

- Symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s are more severe in women than in men.

- Women not only suffer from the disease longer, they also bear the impact of it as principal caregivers of other people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

More Research Needed

Once Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, women may worsen faster; scans show more rapid shrinkage of certain brain areas (Photo: iStock)
Once Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, women may worsen faster; scans show more rapid shrinkage of certain brain areas (Photo: iStock)

A perturbing finding of the study is that that the Alzheimer’s gene has a bigger impact on women than men. Stanford University researchers studied more than 8,000 people for a gene named ApoE-4, associated with increased Alzheimer’s risk. Women who carried a copy of that gene variant were about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as women without the gene, while men’s risk was only slightly increased.

It’s not clear why. It is possible that the gene reacts with estrogen and results in Alzheimer’s but years of studies will be needed to verify that.

We now know that changes in the brain begin almost two decades before the clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s set in. Till about 40 years ago, heart disease was primarily a man’s disease, with little understanding of how women’s heart risks differ. At this point, we can’t be sure that we are not making the same mistake when it comes to Alzheimer’s.

Till science fills these gaps in Alzheimer’s research, millions of families like the Guptas, continue to tidy up the mess of a life that is now lost.

(The article was first published on 29 June, 2105. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives for World Alzheimer’s Day.)

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