Scientists have only recently learned that dementia in men and women manifests itself in different ways. Understanding the differences in the course of the illness can solve one of the biggest medical secrets of our time, writes Laura Oliver for with the BBC.
Five years ago, 75-year-old Branda Whittle was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She still loves to puzzle, sew and dance. The woman likes the new activities much less, but she agreed to take part in the study of dementia.
Brenda is one of over 50 million people worldwide living with dementia. This is the general name for a number of diseases that affect memory and memory processes. Alzheimer's disease is one of them.
The number of people with dementia is growing rapidly. Experts predict that 2030 million people will suffer from this disease by 75, and 2050 million by 131.
And most are women.
In some ways, dementia is even ahead of the more well-known "female" diseases. For example, American women over 60 are twice as likely to have Alzheimer's as breast cancer.
In many countries, say in England or Australia, dementia has become the main cause of death among women, moving heart attack to second place.
“No healthcare system has yet been able to cope with these indicators,” says Antonella Santuccione-Chada of Switzerland, physician and specialist in Alzheimer's disease.
“Since women face this disease much more often, we must first investigate its gender differences,” the doctor adds.
One reason for the gender gap may be age. The older the person, the higher the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, and women usually live longer than men.
However, recent studies show that aging does not have to be accompanied by dementia.
Some risk factors for the disease are more common among women. For example, depression, which is associated with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
Other factors include surgical menopause and pregnancy complications.
Certain social roles can also increase the chances of developing dementia. Some studies have shown that caring for a sick person in itself can become a factor in the development of the disease.
“Disease prevention must start with a better understanding of the female factors of disease,” explains Maria Teresa Ferretti, Alzheimer's researcher at the University of Zurich.
Alzheimer's disease is now being detected using two toxic proteins that accumulate in the brain. These biomarkers do not differ between men and women. But in women, the disease progresses faster.
It turns out that you need to find biomarkers specific for women.
Another question is why the disease develops faster in women. One hypothesis is that estrogen protects a woman's brain in youth, but its benefits decline with age.
According to other researchers, the fact that women show the best results in the initial tests does not allow us to correctly assess the severity of the disease or even determine it at an early stage.
If so, diagnostic tests need to be changed so that they correspond to the neuropsychological differences between men and women.
Another problem is that an equal number of men and women participate in clinical trials of drugs for Alzheimer's disease, since such trials are very expensive and lengthy.
Whereas for other conditions, such as depression or multiple sclerosis, “gender prevalence is always taken into account,” explains the doctor Santuccione-Chada.
Compared to other diseases, research on dementia does not receive sufficient funding.
In the UK, for example, they spend 13 times more on cancer research than on dementia research.
This difference in funding is also characteristic of other countries.
However, thanks to charity work, research funding is gradually increasing. Let's say Bill Gates recently donated $ 50 to research on Alzheimer's.
And Brenda is still managing with the help of a GPS tracker, with which she goes out after she once got on the wrong train. And her husband Stephen pasted reminder notes around the house.
Spouses plan to continue participating in discussions and research on the disease.
Engaging couples like Brenda and Stephen is extremely important. Research that takes into account gender and gender factors contributes to a better understanding of the disease, and hence the treatment and care of patients suffering from it.
Perhaps it is precisely the differences in the course of the disease in men and women that will help solve one of the biggest medical secrets of our time.
Missing such a chance would be foolish, the researchers say.