Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological syndrome that causes memory loss and deterioration of cognitive functions. The disease currently affects nearly 50 million people around the world, most of whom are women age 60 and above. The cause for Alzheimer’s has been historically linked to old age, but researchers have discovered that women may be at a higher risk for the disease and can become more susceptible to its damaging effects.
Currently, 5.8 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, and two-thirds of those affected are women. Though it is already the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, it is projected to affect 14 million Americans in the next 30 years. Its fatality rate significantly surpasses the fatality rate of breast cancer, with women in their 60s being twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than breast cancer.
Because old age is the primary cause of Alzheimer’s, researchers have determined that women are more likely than men to develop the disease because of their higher life expectancy. However, scientists at Cornell University’s Women’s Brain Initiative (WBI) research center beg to differ.
WBI’s mission is to “discover sex-based molecular targets and precision therapies to prevent, delay, and minimize risk of Alzheimer’s disease.” Their research is dedicated to uncovering the biological sex differences that affect the aging of the brain and its vulnerability to illness. Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist, and director of WBI theorizes that women are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s for one primary reason: menopause.
During menopause, women experience a decrease in brain-energy levels and overall cognitive ability. The brain cells age faster and lose around a quarter of their primary fuel. This, along with a decreased production of estrogen, leaves the brain at-risk for the dangers of Alzheimer’s.
“Estrogen,” Mosconi writes, “is a neuroprotective hormone. When it declines, the brain is left more vulnerable. So if a woman is somehow predisposed to Alzheimer’s, that’s when the risk manifests itself in her brain.”
Mosconi doesn’t argue that menopause causes Alzheimer’s, but urges other researchers in her field to seriously consider the relationship between the two. If women are more susceptible to cognitive decline because of a naturally-occurring lifestyle change, more research needs to be done on the prevention and providing women with proper resources and medical attention.