Women are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Nearly two-thirds of the more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s are women and two-thirds of the more than 15 million Americans providing care and support for someone with Alzheimer’s disease are women. This devastating disease places an unbalanced burden on women at work and at home, forcing them to make difficult choices about their careers, their relationships and their futures.
As real a concern as breast cancer is to women’s health, women in their 60s are about twice as likely to develop AD over the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer.
So why does this disease seem to affect more women than men? At first glance, the answer may be that women generally live longer than men, making them more likely to reach the ages of greater risk. However, there is emerging evidence that suggests there may be unique biological reasons for these differences beyond longevity alone. These biological underpinnings may contribute to the underlying brain changes, progression and symptom manifestation in Alzheimer’s disease.
There is evidence that biological sex differences may affect mortality in men differently than women, but how that affects Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia incidence is not clear. Do hormones play a role? What about our genes? Do lifestyle components such as sleep patterns, stress and depression influence sex differences in Alzheimer’s disease?
To tackle many of these questions head on, the Alzheimer’s Association convened top experts in the field of biological sex and Alzheimer’s disease to explore these issues in depth. The “Gender Vulnerability Related to Alzheimer’s Disease” think tank identified gaps in our knowledge and next steps in research needed to advance our understanding. During the think tank, three main topics were discussed: underlying biological mechanisms, the role of hormonal factors and the impact of lifestyle factors.
As a direct result of this think tank, the Alzheimer’s Association announced the new Sex and Gender in Alzheimer's (SAGA) grant funding program, aimed at supporting scientific investigation that addresses the gaps in our understanding of the role biological sex and related genetic, biological, lifestyle and societal factors may play in increasing vulnerability for Alzheimer’s. Additionally, projects funded through SAGA will help meet a need to incorporate learnings from the developing biology fields to merge the expanding field of sex biology research with Alzheimer’s pathophysiological studies.
As with all of our grants, applications for SAGA funding will undergo the Alzheimer’s Association’s rigorous peer-review process. I look forward to sharing more about these grants when they are awarded later this year.
About the Author: Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., is Chief Science Officer, Medical and Scientific Relations, at the Alzheimer’s Association.
SAGA was made possible from the generous support of the Women's Alzheimer's Research Initiative (WARI), a campaign that supports research grants specific to sex-biology and gender issues in Alzheimer’s and other dementias. To date, the Alzheimer's Association has raised $1.6 million for the initiative, including a generous $1 million in support from the Sigma Kappa Foundation.