By 2050, neurologists predict the number of people living with Alzheimer’s will jump to 150 million worldwide — and women are likely to make up a good portion of this caseload.
Alzheimer’s affects almost twice as many women as men. Some experts have suggested that it’s because women, on average, live longer than men do. But that’s not the whole picture. Other factors may include lifestyle factors such as stress, hormone changes that occur during menopause, as well as immune system function.
Kellyann Niotis, M.D., a preventative neurologist at Early Medical specializing in risk reduction strategies for neurodegenerative disorders, points to worsening brain health over time from the cumulative stress and responsibilities women juggle in life. Compared to men, women’s brains appear to be more susceptible to the damaging effects of the stress hormone cortisol. “Cortisol for men seems to not cause much of a change in their memory or how they process information. They actually maintain their cognitive function better under chronic stress than women,” says Dr. Niotis.
The decline of hormones during menopause may also play a role as estrogen appears to be neuroprotective. “These hormonal changes might predispose women to have a higher sensitivity to developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Women’s Brain Project CEO Dr. Antonella Santuccione Chadha explained in a recent Being Patient Live Talk. “The drop in estrogen that one experiences during menopause might be one of the predisposing factors.” Dr. Chadra also points to the fact that women are often caregivers, which increases their risk for depression and social isolation, both risk factors for dementia.
Gender differences in immunity may also explain the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in women, as women’s stronger immune systems may contribute the development of the amyloid plaques in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s.
While age raises the risk of developing the neurodegenerative condition each year, research suggests nearly 40 percent of dementia cases come from modifiable risk factors, such as high blood pressure and excessive drinking. Making healthy lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Here’s what to know:
What are the greatest risk factors for Alzheimer’s?
Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s start decades before you start seeing signs of memory loss, explains Dr. Niotis. Amyloid plaques can start accumulating by the time you’re in your 30s or 40s, and this gives a window of opportunity to delay or stop this build-up before your brain is affected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined eight modifiable risk factors — lack of exercise, cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol drinking, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and hearing loss — that contribute to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. In the study, adults with signs of cognitive decline were more likely to have at least four of the above risk factors.
It’s hard to pick which of the eight risk factors is the most influential, explains Scott Kaiser, M.D., the director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute. Instead, he says it’s often a constellation of factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and lack of exercise that contributes the most to developing Alzheimer’s.
How to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is the key to keeping your mind sharp, says Dr. Kaiser. Here’s how to boost your brain health:
Work out regularly. Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce Alzheimer’s risk. Regular physical activity reduces inflammation, supports brain plasticity (the ability to adapt and create new or stronger neural connections), and improves memory, says Dr. Kaiser. Exercise can also positively impact other risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure.
You don’t need to be a yoga master or marathon runner to start seeing the benefits. The CDC recommends adults have at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities.
Challenge your mind. Your brain is a muscle, and it needs mental workouts with cognitive exercises to keep it sharp. Jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, and word puzzles can help activate and train your long-term memory, visual perception, and problem-solving skills. And while there’s been some conflicting evidence on crossword puzzles, Dr. Kaiser says the activity may also help with lowering the risk of dementia.
Get enough sleep. It‘s recommended that adults get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal brain health. However, Dr. Kaiser says it’s the quality of sleep that is important in reducing dementia risk. If you’re waking up in the middle of the night from your alarm, hot flashes, or staying up late every night, your body won’t have time to get through the restorative effects of sleep, which occurs in the later phases. Deep sleep is necessary for flushing out toxins that accumulate. Research has shown a link between lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s.
Consider the MIND diet . The MIND diet is a combination of the heart-healthy DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. It contains guidelines for eating foods such as green leafy vegetables, fish, and olive oil. A major benefit of the MIND diet is that it’s rich in vitamins, carotenoids, and flavonoids while having recommendations for reducing foods high in saturated and trans fat. Research on the MIND diet has shown it helps slow down cognitive decline by protecting the brain from inflammation and oxidative stress.
Build and lean on your support network. As mentioned earlier, social isolation and loneliness can increase the risk for depression and dementia. Having close ties to family and friends reduces stress and stimulates your attention and memory as you engage in conversation. “It’s probably one of the top things you can do to reduce your risk,” Dr. Kaiser adds. He recommends combining social hangouts with exercise classes or walks outside to further maximize your brain health. “Make it a priority in your life to have a supportive network that gets you moving.”