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Women living with dementia decline faster than men, study reveals

Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

Cognitive ability and language skills decline more dramatically in women living with dementia than men at the same stage of the disease, according to new research published in the World Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire believe that the drop in the level of the hormone oestrogen, after women experience the menopause, may affect how the disease develops.

Professor Keith Laws of the school of life and medical sciences at the University of Hertfordshire, believes the findings could ‘play an important part in understanding the risk factors, progression and treatment of the disease’.

He said: “Genetics are hard to change but easier to screen, cognitive reserve is modifiable and with more women working, the next generation may suffer less. It is therefore fundamental that we continue to identify the role of sex differences to enable more accurate diagnoses and open up doors for new treatments to emerge.”

In the UK, around two-thirds of the 850,000 people living with dementia are female. Dementia is the leading cause of death in women over 80-years-old, and the third for men in this age group.

A review of the research found that women’s memory and thinking functions appear to be affected more by the disease, even in aspects where women normally perform better, such as in verbal and language skills.

These differences do not appear to be due to any differences in age, education or severity of the disease, indicating that gender may play a role in how Alzheimer’s disease affects thinking and learning abilities.

Commenting on the study’s findings, Dr James Picket, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We already know that two thirds of people living with dementia are women. This could be in part due to the fact that women live longer, but it also appears that women are at a higher risk of developing dementia for reasons that we don’t yet know.

“This review pulls together much of the existing evidence to give us a clearer idea about the impact that Alzheimer’s disease has, particularly for women.

“The authors of the review have some interesting theories about why women may be affected by Alzheimer’s more than men – including genetics and hormones. These need to be explored in greater depth so we can understand if there are ways we can address the particular needs and experiences of women with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“However, it’s key to remember that, regardless of gender, no two people with dementia are the same and will experience different signs and symptoms.”

Dr Laura Phipps, from Alzheimer's Research UK, added: “Dementia is the leading cause of death in women in the UK, and it's important that researchers understand the symptoms experienced by both men and women as this may help improve diagnosis, support and treatment in the future.”

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