Why women should worry about Alzheimer's

Story highlights

  • Jill Lesser, Trish Vradenburg: Studies show that Alzheimer's disproportionately affects women
  • We need to mobilize the power of women to demand a bold and innovative path to curing to dementia

Jill Lesser is the president of WomenAgainstAlzheimer's, a network of USAgainstAlzheimer's, which seeks to raise awareness and end the disease by 2020. Trish Vradenburg is the co-founder of USAgainstAlzheimer's. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors. A music legend fights Alzheimer's disease on his unforgettable farewell tour. CNN Films Presents: "Glen Campbell ... I'll Be Me," Sunday, June 28 at 9 p.m. ET.

(CNN)The plight of Alzheimer's patients and the challenges for those who care for them are garnering more attention thanks to movies such as "Still Alice" and the steady disclosure of well-known sufferers, such as musician Glen Campbell, model and entrepreneur B. Smith and Jeb Bush's mother-in-law. They are all courageous in talking about the disease that robs people of mind and dignity.

But one aspect of this debilitating disease is only just beginning to register: Alzheimer's disproportionately affects women.
    Early this month, an important new global study on Women and Dementia was released. The findings are significant and clear: Women are at higher risk for developing dementia and comprise the lion's share of dementia caregivers.
    With the duration of the disease and the lack of any real treatment, the impact on women who are poor or middle class is even more devastating.
    Almost two-thirds of Americans with dementia -- 3.2 million -- are women. While women have a longer life expectancy than men, experts believe that living longer is not the only reason that women have a higher incidence of Alzheimer's.
    For example, research shows that loss of oestrogen after menopause can lead to deficits in brain metabolism, which may lead to Alzheimer's.
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    Overall, women in the United States have a one-in-six chance of developing the disease while men have a one-in-11 chance.
    Alzheimer's is poised to be a top health crisis in this century, comparable to heart disease and outpacing breast cancer by a significant factor. For example, in the United Kingdom, dementia is the No. 1 killer of women.
    It is a uniquely devastating disease, not only destroying memories and cognitive capabilities, but robbing victims of independence and joy. For families, caregivers and society at large, Alzheimer's and related dementias are emotionally and financially ruinous. There is neither a cure nor a means of slowing the progression. Cases of the disease are skyrocketing.
    On the care side of the equation, studies show that women make up 60% to 70% of unpaid caregivers for family and friends.
    What's more, women caring for their spouse are less likely than male caregivers to receive formal support or external resources such as respite, personal care and housework assistance. Meanwhile, female caregivers experience higher levels of burden, stress and depressive symptoms than men.
    According to one study, approximately one third of wife caregivers had depressive symptoms consistent with clinical depression. Daughters acting as the primary caregiver also reported higher burden and depression levels than sons providing care.
    The financial challenges posed by Alzheimer's is daunting.
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    On a global scale, the financial impact is significant at an estimated $604 billion per year, and it's set to skyrocket as Alzheimer's increases in the coming years.
    In the United States, dementia health care costs are much greater than cancer and slightly greater than heart disease, making it the most expensive disease to treat -- and this does not include the value of informal care provided by family and friends.
    Once we factor in informal care, the real number for dementia care is even higher. The health and financial impact of dementia worldwide means that it's a global public health priority that needs to be recognized and acted upon.
    Those of us fighting for a cure and treatment know that we need to stop Alzheimer's for men and women and for their families. But, the fact that the majority of those affected and caring for those with Alzheimer's are women means that special attention must be paid to the gender aspect of the disease and the social, economic and health impact on women of all ages -- mothers, daughters, granddaughters alike.
    We need more research on how the disease affects women.
    In terms of support for women, we need greater availability and affordability of services and better information about how to access services. And lastly, we need to mobilize the power of women to demand a bold and innovative path to curing to Alzheimer's.
    Together, perhaps we can bring this disease out of the shadows and stop Alzheimer's disease by 2020.
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