You’ve probably heard the startling statistics about Alzheimer’s disease: some 5.7 million Americans are living with the illness, and that number is expected to jump to 14 million by the year 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. What may be more surprising is that about two-thirds of that 5.7 million are women.
While scientists aren't sure why women are more susceptible to the disease than men, an October 2017 study conducted by researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine and the University of Arizona Health Sciences suggests a potential link between Alzheimer's and the drop in estrogen levels women experience during and after menopause.
The study found that women who were perimenopausal or had already gone through menopause had lower levels of both glucose metabolism in the brain and mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase — a metabolic enzyme responsible for transporting electrons. These lower levels are similar to what’s seen in cases of "hypometabolism" in the brains of people with Alzheimer's.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi, lead researcher on the study and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, says the findings could show a connection between Alzheimer's risk and estrogen levels, and that this link may lead to the medical community offering additional testing and support to women in their 40s who have yet to show any neurological symptoms of the disease.
Studies such as this one are important steps in the ongoing understanding, treatment and prevention of diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia, but more research is needed to reach a definitive consensus. That being said, there are some key actions women can take to help ward off Alzheimer's disease and protect their cognitive functioning.
1. Stay Involved with Friends and Family
Women have been outliving men for hundreds of years, and just the fact that they live to an older age could be one reason for their increased risk of developing Alzheimer's. Jennie Ann Freiman, MD, author of the book “The SEEDS Plan,” says that "the sudden rise [in Alzheimer's risk] in the ninth decade can be attributed to increasing social isolation that occurs because male partners, on average, are four years older and die four years earlier, typically leaving women to endure eight years of lonely solitude, a major AD risk factor."
To combat this isolation, it's important to stay connected to your family and friends. While phone calls and video chats are good, face-to-face contact is even better, so women who don't live near their loved ones may need to look for social groups elsewhere such as at a church or via community meetups.
2. Embrace a Healthy Lifestyle
Remember that your brain is a part of your body, so taking care of yourself by living healthily can go a long way toward keeping your mind as functional as possible for as long as possible. The following steps are key toward accomplishing this.
- Exercise regularly. Dr. Gad Marshall, associate medical director of clinical trials at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, recommends engaging in "moderately vigorous" exercise three to four times a week, at least 30 minutes per session.
- Focus on the fruits and veggies. Dr. Nodar Janas, a family medicine physician in Manhattan, advises eating a diet rich in antioxidants; powerhouse compounds that help protect the brain and may help boost estrogen levels naturally. Antioxidants are commonly found in fruits and vegetables as well as products like flaxseed.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is incredibly restorative for your body and brain, and shooting for at least seven hours a night can help improve and protect cognitive function.
3. Pay Attention to Your Mental Health
"Depression, especially in women, seems to go hand in hand with Alzheimer's. Whether one triggers the other or how they are related, if at all, is not known," says Vik Chandra, CEO of uMETHOD, a platform that helps doctors treat Alzheimer's by creating personalized treatment plans for patients.
"However," Chandra says, "we can safely say that we believe depression, especially in women in their 40s and 50s, is a red flag; it could warn physicians that a patient could be at higher risk for Alzheimer's, and therefore, implementing preventative measures becomes all the more important,"
Stress, depression and anxiety take a huge toll on your brain and body, and ignoring these issues don’t make them go away. If you're dealing with ongoing negative thoughts or high stress levels, it's important to talk to a health care professional to find healthy coping mechanisms and ways to reduce your stress. Everything from meeting with a therapist to being more mindful can help combat depression and anxiety and help you live a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
4. Consider Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, first gained popularity as a way to treat the symptoms of menopause — such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness — but it's become somewhat controversial in the medical community. While the possible link between decreased estrogen levels and Alzheimer's could indicate HRT as a way to prevent or delay the onset of the disease, some medical professionals aren't so sure.
According to Freiman, "The peer review literature on this question is extremely conflicted and no valid conclusion can be reached … It turns out that if childhood mortality is eliminated from the average age at death, those who made it past childhood in the Paleo [era] often lived into their 70s. Menopausal replacement hormone was not available in pre-historic times, yet those women did not suffer dementia as we do these days."
Because of the mixed opinions of hormone replacement therapy, it's important to talk to your doctor about any concerns you might have about approaching menopause, your risk of Alzheimer's and the possible pros and cons of hormone replacement therapy.
Most of all, it's important to keep a positive, but realistic, mindset and to continue to plan for and be hopeful about your future. Freiman reminds women that "menopause is not a sentence with no possibility of parole."
By taking charge of your health and being an active participant in your healthcare team, you can help protect your cognitive function and independent lifestyle for years to come.
Katelynne Shepard is an experienced writer and editor who specializes in women's health and lifestyle topics. When she's not typing away or correcting commas, she enjoys painting, reading and spending time with her children.