When it comes cognitive impairment and dementia, all things are not necessarily created equal. Particularly men and women.
Research conducted in recent years has reintroduced sex (gender) as a variable in assessing cognitive impairment. Studies with this in mind have revealed that gender plays a significant role in cognitive impairment as risk factors vary between men and women.
Why is Risk Different for Men and Women?
Truthfully, the answer to this question is unclear at present. Researchers are examining every possibility, from how brain structure differs between males and females as does the brain’s function over a person’s lifespan. Others wonder if the fact that men and women go through different physiological processes and changes throughout life stemming from the difference between X and Y chromosomes might be the culprit.
In studies, the term sex typically refers to male or female, while gender refers to environmental, social and cultural factors at play related to sex. While gender is rooted in biology, it’s also an experience. Both can play a part in the development of a neurodegenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, but sex has recently been a focal point fueling research efforts related to the identification and treatment of neurodegenerative conditions.
Risk for Women
Generally speaking, women are at a greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia. This is due to a number of factors that fall into social, genetic and biological categories.
Some studies have examined the prevalence and spread of the toxic tau protein which spreads like a virus in the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s Disease. The protein spreads from neuron to neuron, moving into different areas of the brain. Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center examined the brains of more than 400 men and women, finding that tau proteins spread easier in the brains of women.
An example of a social factor is the impact of working outside the home. In a widely reported University of California Los Angeles study, older women who had full time jobs throughout their lives had a slower rate of cognitive decline after the age of 60 than women who didn’t.
Age is considered the most significant risk factor of Alzheimer’s development. Given the fact that women tend to live longer than men, they tend to have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease than men.
Another risk factor for Alzheimer’s which affects women more than men includes depression, which has been linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Another study published in the journal Neurology pointed out the relevance of surgical menopause and pregnancy complications like pre-eclampsia, both of which have been linked to cognitive decline in later life.
Playing the role of caregiver can also lead to increased risk of Alzheimer’s development, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. This is particularly common in spouses who have to care for the other suffering from dementia due to chronic stress that the situation can cause.
Risks for Men
Male risk factors for dementia typically include the development of heart disease at a younger age and higher rate of poor habits such as smoking and heavy alcohol use. Males with diabetes and those who have suffered a stroke are at greater risk of cognitive impairment.
With funding for Alzheimer’s research on the rise, we’re likely to understand more about sex and its role in the development of the disease. This will help fuel new treatments and ways to identify the condition sooner.