For many years, dementia was referred to as “the silent epidemic” – and for good reason. People were hesitant to talk about the loss of cognitive function that can ultimately interfere with a person’s daily life, even though there are nearly 10 million new cases of dementia worldwide every year. Thankfully, the topic is no longer seen as taboo, and people are much more open to discussing the reality of developing and living with dementia.
Having an open and honest discussion about the risks of dementia is especially important for women. Twice as many women suffer with dementia globally compared to their male counterparts. In this blog, we’ll break down what makes dementia different for women – from hormones to treatment to diagnosis.
All biological females produce a hormone known as estrogen. Many people are aware that estrogen helps control the menstrual cycle and is important for childbearing, but this hormone also affects many other body parts and systems, including our brain, liver, and heart. Some studies have even suggested that estrogen can protect brain cells.
Research has proposed that women may be less likely to develop dementia if they produce more estrogen throughout their lives. If you begin menstruating at a younger age, have at least one childbirth, or go through menopause at an older age, your risk of developing dementia may be lower.
HRT stands for Hormone Replacement Therapy. This type of therapy involves taking medication that contains female hormones to replace the estrogen that your body stops producing during menopause. HRT is typically used to help alleviate symptoms of menopause, such as anxiety and hot flashes. Some studies have shown that women who were already using HRT during menopause had a lower risk of dementia than those who were not on HRT.
In the early 2000s, doctors discovered that the risk of heart and breast cancer offset the advantages of HRT. Not surprisingly, the treatment decreased in popularity. Researchers are now trying to create more advanced and natural ways to add more estrogen to the body to reduce a woman’s risk of developing dementia.
Gender and Dementia Diagnosis
Estrogen has an impact on the brain’s growth and functionality. Research has shown that women have better memory for words and verbal items than men. These memory skills have been linked to estrogen.
To test for and diagnose dementia, medical professionals perform a verbal memory test. Women often excel in this testing method, even if they have cognitive problems. This test leads to women being underdiagnosed with dementia because they maintain memory skills even when they have brain health issues. On the other hand, men are more likely to be misdiagnosed with dementia because their verbal memory skills are not as strong.
Heart Health and Dementia
Heart health is also linked to dementia because the brain and the heart are intrinsically connected. Studies have indicated that the risk factor of poor heart health leading to dementia may also be linked to sex. High blood pressure in middle-aged women, for example, is thought to increase the risk of developing dementia. This link between high blood pressure and dementia is not the case for men.
Method of Diagnosis
In the future, we need to focus on person-centred care and diagnosis for dementia. Our methods of dementia testing need to take into account multiple factors besides just cognitive abilities. The testing needs to focus on various determinants, some of which include:
- Cultural background
- Stress levels
- And, most importantly, biological gender
The Future of Dementia Research and Treatment
Past diagnosis, research, care, and treatment for dementia should have taken into account the fact that women make up 72% of the people affected by this condition. Going forward, scientists, researchers, medical professionals, and pharmacists must develop solutions that improve the lives of both males and females. Further research is also needed to discover why women develop dementia more than men so risk factors and warning signs can be found earlier and prevention can commence.
When dementia is diagnosed early on, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can be implemented to slow the progression of the disease and help preserve mental function. With the wealth of knowledge we now have at our disposal, there is no reason why we can’t make living with dementia more manageable for both women and men alike!