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Why are Women more Vulnerable to Alzheimer’s?

The latest evidence suggest that women’s brains are more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease and other problems with thinking and memory.

Women with mild cognitive impairment, which can lead to Alzheimer’s, tend to decline faster than men, researchers reported this week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, D.C.

Another study showed that women’s brains tend to contain more amyloid, the substance that forms sticky plaques in Alzheimer’s. And a third study found that women who have surgery with general anesthesia are more likely than men to develop long-term problems with thinking and memory.

The studies help explain why women make up nearly two-thirds of all Americans with Alzheimer’s.

The research on women with mild cognitive impairment was part of a large ongoing study called the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Researchers studied up to eight years of records on about 400 men and women in that study who had mild cognitive impairment, a condition that often leads to Alzheimer’s.

“We found that women decline at almost twice the rate of men and we also found that women have faster acceleration of decline over time,” says Katherine Amy Lin, part of a team at Duke University Medical Center. So many women who had subtle memory problems at the beginning of the study period had major deficits by the end.

Another study presented at the Alzheimer’s meeting used PET scanning to measure levels of amyloid in about 1,000 people, including many with cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid is the substance that forms sticky plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

What’s still not clear, though, is why women’s brain cells are more vulnerable than men’s to Alzheimer’s and other memory problems.

One possible explanation is that every cell in a woman’s body carries two X chromosomes, instead of an X and a Y. There are many other differences including hormones, lifestyle, childbearing, diet, and exercise.

If scientists can figure out the mechanism that causes more Alzheimer’s disease in women they might be able to develop treatments that halt the process.

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