Gender and Alzheimer’s – Initiative Explores Why More Women Than Men Have the Disease

The first-ever Alzheimer’s Assoc. Sex and Gender in Alzheimer’s (SAGA) research grant awards will provide $2.2 million to nine projects to advance understanding of the disproportionate effect of Alzheimer’s disease on women.
Almost two-thirds of the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. Among Americans age 71 and older, 16{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of women have Alzheimer’s or dementia compared with 11{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of men, according to Alzheimer’s Assoc. statistics. It is unknown why more women than men are living with this disease. There are several theories, including differences between the sexes regarding length of life, duration of disease, and when they approach their doctor for guidance/diagnosis. In addition, there may be distinct biological and genetic contributions that differ between the sexes.
“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,” said Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Assoc. “As a core part of this discussion, we must explore fundamental differences in biological characteristics and lifestyle factors between the sexes that may play a role to the disproportionate impact on women.”
Each of the SAGA grant-funded projects will receive approximately $250,000. The majority of the investigations are examining relationships between hormones, genetics, and the development of Alzheimer’s. Other key themes include differences in men’s and women’s brains that may contribute to the development or progression of the disease, and sex-specific response to Alzheimer’s risk factors.
Emerging evidence suggests the higher frequency for Alzheimer’s in women may, in part, be due to biological or genetic differences, or different life experiences, such as type and amount of education, occupational choices, or rates of cardiovascular disease.
In May 2015, the Alzheimer’s Assoc. hosted a think tank of biological sex and Alzheimer’s experts. The meeting identified three gaps in understanding the influence of sex on the disease: the role genetics plays in Alzheimer’s; hormonal factors, including changes over time that may affect differences in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s; and lifestyle factors, such as why the brains and cognitive health of women may have more vulnerability to factors such as stress, sleep disorders, depression, and metabolic disorders.
“The link between sex and Alzheimer’s is complex and likely due to multiple factors. Discovering those factors and translating those discoveries into therapy is critical,” said Roberta Brinton, director of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and a think tank co-chair. “We all can agree that, as women and men, we have different experiences as we age. For example, as a SAGA-funded researcher, I am investigating the influence of estrogen loss and genetic risk for Alzheimer’s on brain health, and if that combination of factors impacts the development of Alzheimer’s in women.”
As a direct result of the think tank, the Alzheimer’s Assoc. announced the SAGA funding initiative. SAGA is the only active, multi-project, research-funding effort focused on filling previously identified knowledge gaps related to potential sex differences in Alzheimer’s.
“With SAGA, there is a potential for discovery that could open a whole new world in terms of how we treat people with dementia in the physician’s office,” added Brinton. “There is also an opportunity to improve the way we test new therapies. By better understanding how the disease progresses differently in men and women, we can adjust treatment and the ways we measure effectiveness to be more precise. This could lead to potentially better, more successful clinical trials.”
SAGA is a core component of the Alzheimer’s Assoc. Women’s Initiative. The broader initiative highlights the multiple and disproportionate effects of Alzheimer’s on women as caregivers, advocates, and people living with this disease. It launched in June 2014 with a major goal to engage more women in the fight against Alzheimer’s.
“Through the Alzheimer’s Association Women’s Initiative,” Carrillo said, “we have ignited a global conversation about the striking impact Alzheimer’s has on women and its far-reaching consequences.”

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