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How Dementia Affects Men vs Women

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Adult granddaughter and grandmother holding hands walking in woods

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia.

Some key warning signs that point to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis include:

  1. Memory Problems. Forgetting recently-learned information or important dates or events. Having to ask for the same information over and over and needing to rely on reminder notes or family members for things that used to be handled with ease.
  2. Completing Familiar Tasks. Routine daily tasks become more and more of a challenge, such as driving to familiar locations, managing a budget or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
  3. Trouble Making a Plan. Changes in ability to develop and follow a plan like following a recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. Tasks may take much longer to do than they did formerly or it may be difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.
  4. Confusion Concerning Time or Place. Those with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons, or the passage of time. Sometimes they may be confused about where they are or how they got there.
  5. Visual Images and Spatial Relationships. Difficulty reading, judging distances, and determining color or contrast can affect those with Alzheimer’s and can cause real problems with driving.
  6. Problems with Words when Speaking or Writing. Those with Alzheimer’s may stop in the middle of a conversation with no idea how to continue. They may repeat themselves or struggle with finding the right word.
  7. Losing the Ability to Retrace Steps. They may no longer have the ability to go back over steps to find lost articles. They may accuse others of stealing.
  8. Poor Judgement. When dealing with money, they may no longer be able to make good decisions. They may pay less attention to grooming or personal hygiene.
  9. Withdrawal from Social Activities. They may remove themselves from social interactions or hobbies. They may have difficulty keeping up with favorite sports teams.
  10. Changes in Mood and Personality. They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious. They can be easily upset or become upset when their routine is disrupted.

All of these warning signs are not necessarily present in all persons who have Alzheimer’s. New research suggests that Alzheimer’s disease affects women and men differently. In fact, it is now known that Alzheimer’s disease affects women more severely than it does men.

While it is true that the majority of symptoms and signs of dementia are seen in both genders, according to research, some differences can be more prevalent in one or the other and the rate and degree to which certain symptoms develop may be different.

Women with Alzheimer’s disease can experience a decline in their cognitive abilities more dramatically than men at the same stage of the disease. Language skills and memory are also impacted sooner in women than in men.

What to look for:

Progression of Symptoms: A study found that once the initial symptoms of dementia appear in men and women, they tend to progress at a faster rate in women than men. The reasoning for this correlation is not well understood but is suspected to be genetic or environmental in origin.

Memory: Women were seen to experience memory impairment earlier in the course of dementia than men.

Depression: Men with symptoms of depression were found to have a significantly higher risk of developing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, compared to women with symptoms of depression.

Verbal skills: Men were seen to retain verbal fluency longer than women. This is the ability to correctly perform naming tasks, and the ability to successfully perform delayed recall of words.

Aggression: Men are more likely to be aggressive and act out. They may become agitated and yell or curse at their caregivers.

Wandering: Men are more likely to exhibit wandering tendencies.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior: Some men may act in sexually inappropriate ways.

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK believe that the drop in the level of the hormone estrogen after menopause may affect how the disease develops in women. In the UK, women make up two-thirds of the 850,000 individuals living with dementia.

Professor Keith Laws of the School of Life and Medical Sciences at the University of Hertfordshire, who led the study, said the findings could play an important part in understanding the risk factors, progression, and treatment of the disease.

He added, “It is therefore fundamental that we continue to identify the role of sex differences to enable more accurate diagnoses and open up doors for new treatments to emerge.”

Supported by a new grant from the Alzheimer’s Association, researchers at the University of Southern California explore a key Alzheimer’s gene and how it disproportionately impacts women. Proposed theories range from differences in health care usage and lifestyle factors to lifespan and other biological variations. 

Christian Pike at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, studies the disparity of incidence of Alzheimer’s in women vs. men at the deepest level. He examines key genes involved in the disease and how their effects differ in males and females.

Professor Pike explains, “Men and women are affected by Alzheimer’s disease differently, both in terms of disease development and progression. Understanding the underlying bases of these differences should be useful in determining whether we need to view prevention and treatment differently depending upon gender.”

Professor Pike’s newest project will examine the specific gene which is a primary genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. The presence of this gene disproportionately increases the risk for the disease in women versus men. He explained, “Even in the absence of dementia, this gene, the APOE4, is associated with significantly increased atrophy and dysfunction of the brain and that affects women much more strongly than men.”

The gene increases inflammation in the brain and other genetic risk factors that also affect the functioning of the immune system.

Pike’s new study is supported by a $250,000 Sex and Gender in Alzheimer’s (SAGA) research grant from the Alzheimer’s Association, the first-ever grants which aim to accelerate research on sex differences in Alzheimer’s disease.

Another researcher at USC, Professor Terrence Town from the Keck School of Medicine, will study how sex differences in brain structure and hormonal changes during aging interact to affect the development of Alzheimer’s. He is also looking to see if estrogen treatment can help prevent these changes.

SAGA is a core component of the Alzheimer’s Association Women’s Initiative. Maria Carrillo, Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer, said, “Research showed us how women experience heart disease differently from men. We need to look at Alzheimer’s in a similar way. If we can better understand the disease processes and progression in men and women, we have an opportunity to tailor how we approach detection, diagnosis, and therapeutic approaches based on sex.” According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2018 Facts and Figures report, almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women.

Perhaps because of the differences in the structure of the brains of men vs women, there are behavioral differences in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, which affect the symptoms being experienced.

Contact Us

SALMON Health and Retirement offers a range of services designed to meet the needs of people living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia and provide support for the entire family at every stage.  To learn more about our Tapestry Program for memory care available at SALMON Adult Day Health Centers, Whitney Place Assisted Living Residences, and Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Centers call us at 800-446-8060.