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At a Las Vegas research center, doctors look at why women have a higher Alzheimer’s risk

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2018 file photo, a doctor looks at PET brain scans in Phoenix.
Matt York
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2018 file photo, a doctor looks at PET brain scans in Phoenix.

June is Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month.

While the disease was discovered more than 100 years ago, and has been heavily researched for almost 50 years, it's only been in the last 10 years that research has focused on the differences between men and women who are stricken with it.

Women are known to be twice as likely as their male counterparts to develop the mind-stealing disease.

That's why California's former first lady, Maria Shriver, founded the Women's Alzheimer's Movement (WAM) Prevention Center at Las Vegas' Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in 2020. Four years later, it's still the nation's first and only female-centric Alzheimer's research and caregiving center.

Its director, Dr. Jessica Caldwell, said that the disparity in Alzheimer's rates between men and women can be attributed to a number of factors, both genetic and lifestyle.

"The most common genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease is having a copy or two copies of the APOE allele. And some studies have shown that when a woman has a copy of that allele, she's at up to four times greater risk of developing dementia from Alzheimer's disease compared to a man with that same allele. Then finally, there are just some risks that are more common in women. A great example of this is being sedentary. So, women are about half as likely as men to exercise or to be physically active. And we know that being sedentary is a risk for dementia and Alzheimer's."

Caldwell said hormonal levels also seem to play a particularly important role in memory retention. That's why symptoms of Alzheimer's typically start to appear at the beginning of hormonal events, like menopause.

"One of the things estrogen does in the brain is promote protection of neurons or cells, as well as promote plasticity or flexibility and growth of new neural pathways. So, when women go through menopause, we really have to readjust in terms of our body as well as our brain to having less estrogen. There is typically a bit of a dip in women's memory around that time for many, many women. But for most people, it is just a dip and a recovery in memory. On the other hand, there seem to be women who don't recover quite as well as others, and these may be the women who are experiencing Alzheimer's disease risk related to estrogen."

While drugs aimed at slowing the progression of the disease are continually coming down the pipeline (most notably lecanemab, which was approved by the FDA last summer; and donanemab, which might be approved as early as the end of this year), Caldwell stressed that prevention is more effective than treatment. Oftentimes, this comes down to simply maintaining a healthy, mentally active lifestyle.

"Increasing someone's exercise levels, improving nutrition and sleep — all of those things can go into helping the brain function as best as it can."

Guest: Jessica Caldwell, director, Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

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