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The Alzheimer’s Epidemic Hits Women Hardest

They're more likely to get the disease and care for someone from it

By Sherri Snelling

More than 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and a new report by the Alzheimer’s Association shows women are hit especially hard.

After age 60, women are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than breast cancer over the rest of their lives.

At age 65, women have a one in six chance for developing Alzheimer’s, while men have a one in 11 chance, according to Angela Geiger, chief strategy officer of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Not only are 3.2 million women living with the disease today, Geiger says, women are also “at the epicenter of caregiving for someone with Alzheimer’s.”

(MORE: What Our 42 Million Working Caregivers Need Most)

Of the more than 15 million Americans caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, 63 percent are women. Almost half of them report increased stress — twice the rate of men who are caregiving for someone with dementia. Studies by the National Alliance for Caregiving show women who care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s have a higher emotional burden and are in their caregiving roles longer than the typical caregiver.

While deaths from other chronic diseases are on the decline — heart disease, HIV/AIDS and stroke — Alzheimer’s deaths are on the upswing, increasing 68 percent from 2000 to 2010. In fact, Alzheimer’s now ranks sixth on the Top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., and one in three seniors will die with Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the cost of Alzheimer’s to the nation is estimated at $214 billion annually, the total expenditure for Alzheimer’s research by the National Institutes of Health is only around $500 million. Other diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS, receive billions of dollars in annual funding.

Geiger believes great strides have been made in recent years educating and advocating for women when it comes to heart disease and breast cancer. She hopes the new report will put Alzheimer’s on center stage and particularly show how women are challenged with the disease.

Caregivers in the Workplace

Maria Shriver and the Alzheimer’s Association first put the spotlight on the plight of working women who were also caring for a loved one with dementia. In 2010, they jointly released The Shriver Report — A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s. It found 46 percent of working women asked for time off to care for their loved one with dementia but could not get it.

The Alzheimer’s report just released found six times as many women than men went from full-time work to part-time work in order to care for a loved one with dementia and twice as many of these working women (vs. working men) gave up their jobs altogether to become full-time caregivers.

(MORE: How to Cut the Caregiving Costs of Alzheimer's Disease)

In addition, and perhaps most alarming, is that twice as many women lost job benefits because of their caregiving role compared with men. This has led many caregivers, especially of those with dementia, to feel stigmatized at work.

Navigating the workplace proves to be tricky for caregivers. Some “limit information to supervisors, only disclosing that they may have to miss work or leave early rather than having a thoughtful conversation about their caregiving responsibilities,” explains Zachary White, assistant professor at Queens University of Charlotte (in North Carolina) and creator of the Unprepared Caregiver website.

White says not giving supervisors context about missed time can cause ambiguity for both supervisor and the caregiving employee. It's better to have the conversation, he advises.
Alzheimer’s Prevalence and Prevention


Why are women more at risk then men for Alzheimer’s?

“Women and men have similar incidence rates of Alzheimer’s disease, but women are more at risk because on average women outlive men and therefore the prevalence, which relates to the percentage of those who have the disease, for women is higher,” says, Dr. Helena Chang Chui, chair of the department of neurology at Keck Medicine of USC, an internationally-recognized Alzheimer’s researcher.

In fact, women have a two to one prevalence for developing Alzheimer’s, Chui says. 

Current Alzheimer’s epidemiological studies suggest estrogen hormone replacement therapy, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and statin medications could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, but prevention studies have not yet confirmed these hypotheses, Chui says.

Some reports show those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease may have actually been living with the disease for more than 10 years. Chui says Alzheimer’s disease is associated with a slow build-up of beta-amyloid plaques and tau positive neurofibrillary tangles that may start to accumulate decades before a person develops symptoms of memory loss.  

“Alzheimer’s disease is similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that develops gradually in persons who are smokers before they have shortness of breath,” Chui says. “Healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as regular, moderate aerobic exercise, cardiac healthy diet and more education about chronic disease prevention, may help reduce an individual’s risk for Alzheimer’s. But more prevention research is needed.”

Although there is no cure or significant way to slow or prevent Alzheimer’s, an early diagnosis allows families to plan ahead, emotionally and financially.

“The best way and surest way to accelerate the long-awaited breakthrough is to dramatically increase our national investment in Alzheimer’s research,” says Chui.

One step in the right direction is a national initiative the Alzheimer’s Association is launching this spring to engage women in the fight against the disease.

“Realizing the impact Alzheimer's has on women — and the impact women can have when they work together — we believe this initiative will create positive momentum in one day ending Alzheimer’s,” continues Geiger. "Despite being the nation's biggest health threat, Alzheimer's disease is still largely misunderstood. Everyone with a brain — male or female, family history or not — is at risk for Alzheimer's.”

To join the Alzheimer’s Association movement, visit

Photograph of Sherri Snelling
Sherri Snelling 
Sherri Snelling
 is a corporate gerontologist, speaker, and consultant in aging and caregiving. She is the author of “Me Time Monday – The Weekly Wellness Plan to Find Balance and Joy for a Busy Life” and host of the "Caregiving Club On Air" podcast.
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