Alzheimer’s and the Downward Spiral: SWHR Holds Congressional Briefing About Women and Alzheimer’s Disease

Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 8, 2011) - Costing $172 billion a year for health care and research funding, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) affects one in three families and has a widespread impact on our economy and aging population. Most notably, this disease plagues women twice as much as men. At a congressional briefing held by the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR), experts in Alzheimer’s research discussed the need to examine the sex differences in AD, both for the cause, prevention and treatment as well as the caregiver role.

Alzheimer’s disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States and affects 5.4 million people; these numbers will skyrocket as the baby boomer population ages. George Vradenburg, JD, founder of USAgainstAlzheimer’s discussed the toll AD takes on women suffering from the disease or in the caregiver role. Alzheimer’s currently cannot be cured or even treated effectively. Vradenburg noted AD research is severely underfunded and efforts need to be focused on Alzheimer’s like they were for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s by stimulating the private sector to invest in the disease.

Discussing Alzheimer’s specific impact on women, Pauline M. Maki, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and Director, Women’s Mental Health Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the goal for Alzheimer’s research is to find ways to halt the disease. AD will affect more than 15 million people over the next 15 years with costs exceeding $20 trillion. Maki states that even small gains made in potential treatments will mean huge costs savings.

More women than men die from Alzheimer’s and have a greater risk of developing the disease in their lifetime. “Sex differences in risk factors for Alzheimer’s are: depression, exercise, genetics, menopause and menopause treatments, and drugs to treat osteoporosis and breast cancer,” said Maki. Women suffering from depression have a 90% increased risk compared to men and an even greater risk after menopause, due to decreased estrogen levels. Another risk factor is having a hysterectomy and ovaries removed. Women who remove their ovaries before the age of 48 have a 70% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. However, if that woman used estrogen hormone therapy until menopause, she reduces her risk. Maki’s research shines a light on the unique female biology that contributes to women’s higher incidence of AD.

Roberta Diaz Brinton, PhD, R. Pete Vanderveen Chair in Therapeutic Discovery and Development Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Biomedical Engineering and Neurology at the University of Southern California discussed the aging female brain and why women are more susceptible to AD. Initially, the most common theory was that because women live longer than men, they are more affected by AD. In truth, women only live on average five years longer than men, and more likely it is the difference in their brains and physiology that contributes to this difference.

Type II diabetes is a major risk factor for AD as it affects the brain first. Hypometabolism in the brain is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease since an AD afflicted brain has less glucose, appearing shriveled when compared to a disease-free brain. A maternal family history of Alzheimer’s predisposes the brain to hypometabolism more so than a paternal family history. While current therapies intervene at time of diagnosis, Brinton stressed that therapies should be applied before the disease takes hold.

“Geeks of the world are on this! Scientists are on the threshold,” said Brinton. “We can beat this disease and we can prevent it.”

To discuss the caregiver role in Alzheimer’s disease, Mary S. Mittelman, DrPH, Director of the Psychological Research and Support Program, Center of Excellence for Brain Aging and Research, Department of Psychiatry, at New York University Langone Medical Center provided caregiving statistics for those responsible for Alzheimer’s patients. The burden of care for people with AD falls 60% on women, most of whom are family members. “Nearly 15 million Americans provide 17 billion hours of unpaid care for a person with AD valued at over $202 billion,” said Mittelman. “80% of care is provided at home by family caregivers and provided at substantial personal cost.”

Family caregivers are at higher risk for depression and physical illness due to the high emotional stress of nursing an Alzheimer’s patient. Caregivers are more likely to say their health is fair or poor or that their health has worsened since becoming a caregiver. The physical and emotional impact of caregiving on AD caregivers is estimated at $7.9 billion in increased healthcare costs in the U.S. However, there are some psychosocial interventions in place to help caregivers manage their emotional and physical problems, such as education that provides improved coping strategies and skills training, formal services, and enjoyable shared activities that are an outlet for the caregiver and the patient.

All of the panelists confirmed that exercise and maintaining a healthy weight to prevent heart disease and diabetes are the best lifestyle strategies to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease devastates not only the patient but also the family and/or caregiver responsible for administering care and support. “Through focused research and prevention methods, we can delay progress of the disease with improved treatments and even find a cure,” said Phyllis Greenberger, MSW, President and CEO of SWHR. “With the influx of aging baby boomers, we know that time is of the essence. SWHR will continue to advocate for increased research on women and Alzheimer’s disease.” ###

For more information on the Society for Women’s Health Research please contact Rachel Griffith at 202-496-5001 or

The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR), a national non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., is widely recognized as the thought leader in women’s health research, particularly how sex differences impact health. SWHR’s mission is to improve the health of all women through advocacy, education and research for more information.

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