Unraveling the Mysteries of Alzheimer’s Among Women
More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is estimated to jump to 16 million by 2050 as people live longer and baby boomers reach the age when they are more at risk of the disease.1 What is perhaps even more disturbing is that this brain disease discriminates against women, yet the reason for this discrepancy between the genders is not well understood. Two out of three people with Alzheimer’s are women, and women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are to develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
“Genetics is part of the equation when calculating who is at risk, but studies are also starting to show that lifestyle changes in early to mid-adulthood may be a factor,” says Joshua Grill, co-director of University of California at Irvine’s Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND). “Data from new studies suggests that smoking, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol might be linked to the disease.”
Scientists are starting to investigate how physical exercise, getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet and staying cognitively active may be critical not only for body health but also brain health. The brain—the most vascular organ in humans—uses 20 percent of the body’s blood oxygen, and healthy lifestyle choices increase blood flow and decrease inflammation, says Grill. This may shed light on why today’s aging female population is more at risk.
“Women in previous generations may not have had the same opportunities as women today for a college education, challenging careers, and physical exercise, and those lifestyle differences could increase the risk of developing the disease,” Grill says.
To support women-based Alzheimer’s research, UCI MIND recently announced a partnership with The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM), a non-profit organization founded by Maria Shriver, the award-winning journalist and former First Lady of California. Historically, studies about Alzheimer’s disease have not focused specifically on men or women. The initiative will enable researchers from UCI MIND to apply for funding to collect preliminary data about the role of sex and gender in the disease. “This will give researchers the start they need to apply for larger grants from the NIH,” Grill says.
UCI MIND is one of only 30 NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers in the United States, and Shriver talked to Women about why she’s dedicated herself to supporting gender-based research in this field and why her non-profit is committed to supporting partnerships like the one with UCI MIND.
How did you become interested in Alzheimer’s disease?
My father was diagnosed with the disease, and as a result, he passed away in 2011. Since then, it’s been my mission to advocate for the millions of families affected and do everything I can to demand answers about this disease that robs people of their minds. I’ve spent the past 14 years fighting on the front lines as an activist and as a journalist, using my voice to raise awareness and to push researchers, scientists, politicians, and other influential leaders to make this issue a public health priority.
What are some common misconceptions about the disease?
Most people don’t understand their risk for Alzheimer’s disease. We did a national survey in November 2017 with the Bipartisan Policy Center and it revealed that there is a huge crisis of awareness in America. The survey showed that the majority of Americans think that if they don’t have a family history of Alzheimer’s, then they are not at risk of getting the disease. That’s just not true. We also found that many Americans believe that if Alzheimer’s runs in their family, then they are guaranteed to get it and think there is nothing they can do to avoid it. That’s also not true. Your genes are not your destiny. We’re coming to learn more and more that lifestyle choices can, in fact, improve your brain health. No one thing is a “cure all,” but leading a healthy life—which includes a nutrient-rich diet, exercise, meditation, sleep and social connection—is important to keeping our brains healthy as we age. Through my work with my nonprofit, The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, we are doing everything we can to make people aware of brain health and the issue of Alzheimer’s. I am really excited about the number of people who are waking up to this issue and beginning to recognize that caring for their brains is just as important as caring for their bodies. The two are definitely connected.
What are some things you do personally to promote brain health?
I have certainly taken steps to exercise more frequently, to avoid sugar in my diet, to get enough rest, and to meditate every morning. It’s not always easy—especially putting down the sweets—but I’m definitely aware now of the importance of making these changes. My children are very aware of it now as well, and they’re often the ones reminding me to keep up this brain-healthy lifestyle.
Why do you feel it’s important to study women with Alzheimer’s disease?
Every 66 seconds, a new brain develops Alzheimer’s in America. Two-thirds of those brains belong to women, and no one knows why that is. That’s unacceptable to me, and that’s why it’s important to make gender-based research a priority. This partnership aims to do research that helps us get closer to answering the important question of why more women get Alzheimer’s than men. By figuring this out, my hope is that we will get closer to a treatment or cure for all minds.
What are some of the things we already know about gender differences related to the disease?
Researchers who are focused on this issue are looking at a number of different factors, including hormones and the X chromosome, as well as how depression, stress, and inflammation affect women differently than men. That’s just to name a few things. There’s a lot we still don’t know about what makes women more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s, but that’s why I’m pushing for scientists and researchers to make women’s brains a focal point of their research.
What is your hope for the future related to Alzheimer’s disease?
I hope we find a cure and wipe it out for good. I’m optimistic we can do that within our lifetime. This is the only major disease for which there is no cure. And it’s one of the most expensive diseases. It’s set to bankrupt our country if we don’t make tackling it a national priority. My goal for the future through The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement is to make more women aware of their increased risk for this disease and to educate everyone—men and women—about what they can do to lead a brain-healthy life. This June, we will be hosting Move For Minds, a month-long initiative in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. that aims to teach people how to make their minds and their cognitive health a priority. Funds raised from Move For Minds will go toward supporting gender-based research and advancing our understanding of this mysterious and complex disease.
How can women help spread awareness surrounding Alzheimer’s disease?
We have to serve as reporters of this vital information. We have to pass it forward to our families, to our communities, to our schools, to our churches, to our workplaces—anywhere we have an audience. Too many people just don’t know the facts. Many women don’t know that they are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than men, and most Americans don’t realize that the disease starts to form in the brain 20 to 30 years before symptoms appear. That’s why it’s so critical we start taking action to better our health now. That’s why time is of the essence to wipe out this mind-blowing disease. Get educated and spread this knowledge to others.
For more information about The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, visit the following links:
 The Alzheimer’s Association. Available at: https://www.alz.org/facts/#prevalence
 The Alzheimer’s Association. Available at: https://mybrain.alz.org/alzheimers-facts.asp
 Gottesman, RF, et al., Association between midlife vascular risk factors and estimated brain amyloid deposition, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2017 Apr; 317(14):1443-1450. doi: 10.1001/jama.2017.3090. Available at: http://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/journal-scans/2017/04/11/14/06/association-between-midlife-vascular-risk-factors
 Morris MC, et al., Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study, Neurology, 2018 Jan 16;90(3):e214-e222. Available at: http://n.neurology.org/content/early/2017/12/20/WNL.0000000000004815
 Sprecher, KE, et. al., Poor sleep is associated with CSF biomarkers of amyloid pathology in cognitively normal adults, Neurology, 2017 Aug 1;89(5):445-453. Available at http://n.neurology.org/content/early/2017/07/05/WNL.0000000000004171 .