Source Alert: Alzheimer’s has a harder impact on women, in health and at home
November 1, 2019
November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, and many people don’t realize that of the 5.8 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, nearly two-thirds are women. The reason for this striking discrepancy isn’t yet known, and proposed theories range from differences in hormones to lifestyle factors. USC researchers are studying the gender gap in how Alzheimer’s impacts the brain, as well as its toll on the family.
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“Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men and, contrary to prior beliefs, it is not only because women live longer. Biological changes, particularly those that occur during menopause, may partially explain this disparity.
“Studies have shown that lower estrogen levels may drive abnormal brain changes that are seen in Alzheimer’s. More prospective studies – where we monitor individuals over time — are needed to determine the specific changes that occur as a function of menopause.”
April Thames is an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry in the USC Dornsife College of Letters and Sciences. Her work focuses on the impact of chronic disease, discrimination, substance abuse, socioeconomic disadvantage, and other forms of adversity and resiliency on neurological, cognitive, and health outcomes.
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“We are investigating two areas related to women’s higher risk of Alzheimer’s. Recently, our team has been investigating the novel idea that early developmental differences between males and females yield a female brain that is inherently more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.
“Another hypothesis is that estrogen has numerous beneficial actions in the brain, thus its depletion at menopause represents the loss of an important protective factor. ”
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“Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can be a lonely experience. Caregivers experience a gradual shrinking of their social network.
“Moreover, the person they care for 24/7 will not be someone who can fill this void. Some of the high rates of depression in this population are likely related to social isolation and loneliness. We need to help socially isolated caregivers supplement their social network so we can improve their health and well-being.”
Donna Benton is a research associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. Her publications focus on research on elder abuse and minority caregiving.
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“Using laboratory rats genetically programmed to develop the disease, we’re trying to understand the role that estrogen plays in cognition and brain pathology.
“Clinical studies have shown that risk for Alzheimer’s disease increases after menopause, and estrogen replacement therapy reduces the risk for Alzheimer’s.”
Terrence Town is an instructor at the Keck School of Medicine’s Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute. He can speak about how sex differences in brain structure and hormonal changes during aging interact to affect the development of Alzheimer’s.
His lab’s focus is to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease by targeting the body’s immune system.
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Women likely to be living alone at time of diagnosis
“Women have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s than men, in large part because they live longer on average, and age is the biggest risk factor for developing the disease.
“In clinic, what I see is that due to higher life expectancy, women are also more likely than men to be living alone at the time of diagnosis and to have an adult child rather than a spouse as primary caregiver. This makes it harder for them to remain in their own homes as the disease progresses and they need more help with basic activities.”
Elizabeth Joe is an assistant professor of clinical neurology at Keck School of Medicine of USC. She sees Alzheimer’s patients in the clinic and can speak about diagnosing the disease and issues facing families.
Contact: Cynthia Smith at 323-442-3811 or Cynthia.Smith@med.usc.edu