Women and Alzheimer’s

Recently I received an email from Care 2 Make a Difference, encouraging me to become a Memory Maker for the Alzheimer Society here in Toronto .  What exactly does this mean?  A Memory Maker is someone who wants to make a difference in the lives of people living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias in their community.  They do this by coming up with creative, unique and inspiring ways to raise funds in support of the Alzheimer Society mission.   If you are interested in becoming a Memory Maker, click here to find out how.

What is Alzheimer’s? 

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities, to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of daily living.

Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). Plaques and tangles in the brain are two of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. The third is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.  

I was reading about Alzheimer’s and its impact on women.  Sixty-five percent of those with Alzheimer’s are women, and women are also more likely than men to be caregivers for someone with the disease.  Maria Shriver, an executive producer for The Alzheimer’s Project documentaries that aired two years ago on HBO.  Her father, the first leader of the Peace Corps, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003.  He is in his nineties.  

According to the poll, which gathered information from 3,118 adults nationwide, including more than 500 Alzheimer caregivers:

  • 60% of Alzheimer’s caregivers are women.
  • Of those women, 68% report they have emotional stress from caregiving.
  • Nearly half of these 68% rate their stress as a “5” on a scale of “1” to “5.”
  • 57% of all caregivers, including 2/3 of the women, admit they fear getting Alzheimer’s.
  • 4 in 10 caregivers say they had no choice about their new role.

How heartbreaking it must be for a woman to see someone she loves deteriorate.  Does she, like Maria Shriver fear that one day she will get Alzheimer’s?  There are risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s and they are:

Age – The brain has to reach a certain critical age for the disease to occur. The older you become the higher the risk – 1 in 20 Canadians over age 65 and 1 in 4 of those over age 85 are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. 

Family history and genetics – A very small percentage of people with Alzheimer’s disease (5-7%) has Familial Alzheimer’s disease or FAD (formerly known as “early onset Alzheimer’s disease”). At some point in their family history certain genes mutated and developed the abnormal characteristics that cause FAD. These inherited genes have a powerful influence: if one parent has FAD, each child has a 50 % chance of inheriting the disease, and with two parents with FAD, 75% of their children will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease in adulthood. 

ApoE4 Gene – This gene is the most important genetic risk factor for the sporadic form of Alzheimer’s disease. ApoE genes regulate the production of a protein that helps carry cholesterol and other fats in the blood to the cells of the body. Of the three variants of the apoE gene (apoE2, apoE3 and apoE4), the apoE4 variant is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Female Gender – Twice as many women get Alzheimer’s disease than men. Many believe that it is in a large part a result of the changes to women’s hormones at menopause, in particular the decline of the important hormone estrogen. In the past estrogen was often prescribed to relieve symptoms of menopause and to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. On average, women live longer than men and age is a risk factor. Women are also more prone to diabetes, which is also a risk factor (see below), and recently, a gene was identified that occurs only in women, and appears to somewhat increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Cardiovascular Disease – All the risk factors for cardiovascular disease (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels) are also risk factors for both Alzheimer’s disease and Vascular Dementia. Strokes and mini-strokes (the latter detected largely through later testing), are also well-accepted risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and for Vascular Dementia.

Diabetes – It has been known for some time that type 2 (“Adult”) diabetes is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Down Syndrome – Almost all individuals with Down syndrome who live into their forties and beyond will develop the abnormal changes in the brain (the plaques and tangles) that characterize Alzheimer’s disease. It is important to note, however that not all people with Down syndrome who develop these brain changes will go on to develop dementia.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) – In MCI, there is a level of cognitive and/or memory impairment beyond that expected for normal aging but not sufficiently advanced to be called “dementia” or “Alzheimer’s disease.” It is estimated that up to 85% of people with MCI, who are often in their early forties or fifties, will develop Alzheimer’s disease within ten years, making MCI an important risk factor for the disease.

Head injury – Brain injuries at any age, especially repeated concussions, are accepted by most clinicians as risk factors for the later development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Low Levels of Formal Education – Several studies have shown that people who have less than six years of formal education appear to have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It has been assumed that the brain stimulation associated with learning provides a protective effect for the brain; therefore more education provides greater protection. However, new studies challenge this conclusion, and it may be that factors often associated with low educational background, such as unhealthy lifestyle, account for the risk rather than low educational level itself.

Other risk factors are:  inflammatory conditions (possibly reflecting immune system malfunction), a history of episodes of clinical depression, stress, and inadequate exercising of the brain. Risk factors that are less firmly established include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and drug abuse.  Aluminum is no longer regarded as a risk factor although some researchers are still examining whether some people are at risk because their bodies have difficulties in handling foods containing the metals copper, iron, and aluminium.

How do you reduce the risk of getting Alzheimer’s?  Living a healthy lifestyle may help to reduce one’s overall risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  A healthy lifestyle includes healthy eating, maintaining a healthy weight, taking part in regular physical activity (which can be quite modest), maintaining normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels and participating in activities that involve socializing and stimulating brain activity.  I have always heard that seniors are encouraged to do cross word puzzles and other activities that will help to stimulate their brains. 

Encourage your parents and grandparents to take care of their health and to be physically active.  Engage them in activities that will stimulate their brains.  Don’t wait until you are their age!  Start doing what you need to do to reduce your risk of getting Alzheimer’s. 

For those of you who are caregivers for people suffering with Alzheimer’s, here are simple strategies that will help you to get through your most demanding days and protect you against caregiver burnout:

  • Schedule mini-workouts throughout the day. Regular exercise not only keeps you fit, it releases endorphins that keep you happy. Ten minute sessions sprinkled over the course of the day are easier to block out than an hour away. Look for library videos, websites, and TV programs to keep your routines varied and motivating.
  • Take time to play. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, include your loved one in short walks, board games, or jigsaw puzzles. Join an online scrabble tournament, practice your golf swing, or master the yo-yo. A daily dose of fun is good medicine, and doesn’t require money, a car, or huge blocks of time.
  • Try something new. Challenge yourself to learn a new skill while you are “on the job.” Order a self-paced foreign language program and you will count to 100 in no time. Join the video game fitness craze to try a new sport. From singing to bowling to pitching a strike, systems like the Nintendo Wii offer living room-friendly activities for every age and skill level. With just a few minutes of practice each day, you can flex mental muscle and release harmful steam.
  • Keep ‘em laughing. Humor is a well-known antidote to stress, sadness, illness, and boredom. Give yourself permission to chuckle at the absurdities you and your loved one experience, and surround yourself with laughter. Avoid heavy dramas at the video store and go for a hearty belly laugh. Your infectious good mood will replenish your inner resources and sooth your loved one.
  • Ask for help. For someone who is used to operating independently, the realities of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can be a real eye-opener. Those with strong support systems, creative respite arrangements, and regular time away not only fare better, they also find more satisfaction in their caretaking roles. Join a support group, schedule frequent breaks, and seek professional help if you recognize yourself in the “warning signs of caregiver burnout.”

 This prayer came to mind as I thought of those suffering with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

GOD, grant me the Serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change,
Courage to change the
things I can,
and the Wisdom
to know the difference

 Nancy Reagan was viewed as the model for caregivers of Alzheimer patients around the world.  When her late husband President Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with the disease, she cared for him and became an advocate for research to cure the debilitating brain disorder.   It was a long and very difficult period for her.  She said, “We have learned, as too many other families have learned, of the terrible pain and loneliness that must be endured as each day brings another reminder of this very long goodbye.” To her it seemed as if her husband was in a distant place where she could no longer reach him. But she added that she is determined to do whatever she can to save other families from the pain hers has suffered.

My heart goes out to those who are suffering from Alzheimer’s and I pray that their caregivers will have the courage and strength to help them through these difficult times. 

Become a Memory Maker for the Alzheimer’s Society so that we can help raise money for important research on the causes, prevention and cure of Alzheimer’s disease.  Your fundraiser will be a very important contribution to those living with dementia, their caregivers and families.  Plan today to make a difference for those with Alzheimer’s disease.


Sources:  http://www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/Publications/adfact.htm; http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=121070; http://www.alzheimer.ca/english/disease/causes-riskfac.htm; http://helpguide.org/elder/alzheimers_disease_dementia_support_caregiver.htm; http://www.angelfire.com/ny2/dementia1/poems.html;                              http://www.voanews.com/english/news/a-13-a-2004-06-09-19-1-66888737.html



One response to “Women and Alzheimer’s

  1. Pingback: Depression in Men – The Silent Killer | Depression Killer

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