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Alzheimer’s disease hits women more and harder than men

Maria Shriver, an Alzheimer's activist, says

Maria Shriver, an Alzheimer's activist, says "This is the biggest health crisis in the world . . . It bankrupts families faster than any other disease." Photo Credit: TNS / Azusa Takano

The statistics on women and Alzheimer’s disease are startling.

Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s. Two-thirds are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Women in their 60s are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the course of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer.

Once women develop mild cognitive impairment, their cognitive decline is two times faster than men.

And no one knows why women are so disproportionately affected by the disease.

California’s former first lady and Alzheimer’s activist Maria Shriver is puzzled by the indifference she sees among women regarding their cognitive health. Maybe it’s fear and ageism, she says, but many are reluctant to even acknowledge the threat, and fewer still are asking their doctors about how to prevent it.

“I ask myself all the time,” Shriver says, “why aren’t more people interested in this? Why isn’t this of more national importance? This is the biggest health crisis in the world . . . It bankrupts families faster than any other disease.”

That’s not just because there’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s. Women also make up a disproportionate share of the caregiving.

Shriver launched the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement for advocacy, fundraising and education in 2009 after research was released showing the disease’s disproportionate effect on women.

Scientists used to think that women were harder hit by Alzheimer’s as a consequence of generally living longer than men. But that isn’t so, says Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association. She says new studies suggest that there are more explanations from the different biological pathways in women’s brains, the effect of hormones or even the way women’s brains metabolize food differently. Because Alzheimer’s typically takes two decades to develop before memory changes occur, adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle in your 30s and 40s can make a big difference, Snyder says.

Shriver, for her part, has started meditating to “change the way I process stress,” took up dance and learned poker, ironed out a more regular sleep pattern, added more healthy fats to her diet and cut back on sugar to reduce inflammation in her body and brain.

Here are nine tips for reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s, as recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association:


Regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline.


Education at any stage of life is beneficial for brain health, from an online course to classes at your local community center or college. Even mental challenges like jigsaw puzzles, card games and art classes have an effect.


Quitting can take your risk down to levels comparable to those who have never smoked.


Growing evidence suggests that many factors that increase the risk of heart disease, from obesity to high cholesterol and blood pressure, also may increase the risk of dementia. Get your numbers checked.


Brain injury can increase your risk of cognitive decline and dementia, so wear a helmet for sports, click that seat belt, and avoid falls.


Certain diets, including Mediterranean and Mediterranean-DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), may contribute to risk reduction.


Sleep apnea and insomnia can result in problems with memory and thinking.


Volunteer, help a neighbor, take an exercise class with a friend, or just share more activities with friends and family.


Some studies link a history of depression with increased risk of cognitive decline, so seek help from a professional for depression, anxiety, stress or other mental health concerns. That includes finding ways to manage stress.

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