Women make up two-thirds of Americans who have Alzheimer’s disease, yet scientists have yet to determine what makes them so susceptible to the condition.

Bernard Schreurs, a researcher with the West Virginia University School of Medicine and Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, directs the West Virginia Alzheimer’s Disease Registry and studies sex-linked disparities in Alzheimer’s.

Schreurs is available to speak about the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in women on the heels of a recent study, led by researchers at Boston University, that identified a gene that may make women more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

The gene — called “MGMT” or O6-Methylguanine-DNA-methyltransferase — helps the body repair damaged DNA in both men and women. But women who inherit the MGMT gene appear to have a higher Alzheimer’s risk, whereas men with the gene do not.


On this study’s importance

“Ninety to 95% of Alzheimer’s disease cases are sporadic, they are not the result of inheriting the disease from your parents. However, there are risk factors that do have a genetic component, particularly the APOE4 gene, which is associated with a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease in women than men. The problem is that women without the APOE4 gene still get Alzheimer’s disease more frequently than men do. This new research shows that the MGMT gene is significantly associated with Alzheimer’s disease pathology in women and not men. This finding is important because it describes the discovery of another genetic component that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease in women even if they don’t have APOE4.”

On this discovery’s potential benefit to women

“Genetic testing for something like MGMT is an option in determining whether someone is at increased risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing a woman is at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease because of changes in MGMT may help encourage them to reduce modifiable risk factors — such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet — that could otherwise cause changes in the expression of this gene. At some point, there may be treatments that can be targeted at modifying gene expression and testing could determine whether those treatments would be of benefit.”

On the difficulty of determining what causes women’s high Alzheimer’s risk 

“Biomedical research on women is a fairly recent development based, in part, on biases and on the realization that men and women do not have the same underlying physiology. As a result, researchers are now required to use both men and women in studying diseases and developing treatments. In a sense, researchers are playing catchup because they don’t know as much about Alzheimer’s disease in women as they do in men and treatments based on research on men may have different effects on women.”