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The Heavy Toll of Alzheimer’s on Women

-Editorial

The primary risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age, and California is older than it’s ever been, being home to more adults aged 65 and over than any other state.

Women are especially impacted by this disease, making up nearly two-thirds of those diagnosed and over 60% of caregivers. With 11 million women in the U.S. living with Alzheimer’s or caring for someone who has it, however, the disease is no less burdensome.

Women who have Alzheimer’s on the one hand risk social isolation, misdiagnosis and stigma, while women caring for those with Alzheimer’s risk adverse personal, professional and mental health consequences due to unpaid and informal caregiving responsibilities.

In fact, over a third of U.S. dementia caregivers overall are daughters, while 19% of women Alzheimer’s caregivers have had to quit their job due to their caregiving duties.

In this briefing by Ethnic Media Services, Alzheimer’s practitioners, researchers, advocates and firsthand storytellers spoke about how and why Alzheimer’s disproportionately impacts women both as patients and caregivers, and what can be done to ease the toll.

Dr. Wynnelena C. Canio, a leading figure in geriatric medicine and the Medical Director of the Acute Care for the Elderly unit at Kaiser Permanente, addressed the audience, shedding light on her personal journey and the urgent need for action.

Dr. Canio, reflecting on her childhood experiences accompanying her grandparents to medical appointments, expressed her early fascination with doctors’ ability to heal both emotionally and physically. Inspired by her grandparents’ significant role in her upbringing, she embarked on a career dedicated to helping older adults, particularly those facing Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“I felt a deep sense of fulfillment in helping the older patients,” Dr. Canio remarked, emphasizing her passion for geriatric medicine and psychiatry. Her personal experiences, including her grandmother’s battle with dementia, fueled her commitment to addressing the unique needs of aging populations.

Highlighting the profound impact of Alzheimer’s on families, Dr. Canio recounted her own journey as a caregiver, underscoring the challenges faced by individuals providing care for loved ones with progressive cognitive decline. “None of us expected this journey,” she remarked, emphasizing the unforeseen burden placed on caregivers.

The press conference also spotlighted the alarming demographic trends driving the urgency of the campaign. With California projected to see a doubling of individuals with dementia by 2040, the need for comprehensive education and preparation is more critical than ever.

The campaign, developed by the California Department of Public Health, aims to shift public perception and reduce stigma surrounding Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Canio stressed the importance of multilingual, multicultural, and intergenerational approaches to reach diverse communities across the state.

As May marks both Mother’s Day and National Women’s Health Week, Dr. Canio urged a focus on the impact of dementia on women, particularly those of color. With women comprising nearly two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers, she emphasized the need for tailored support and resources.

Dr. Canio called for collective action to confront Alzheimer’s disease head-on. “We all have a role in taking on Alzheimer’s,” she declared, urging individuals to start conversations, seek information, and prioritize brain health.

Dr. Mirella Diaz-Santos, Assistant Professor in Residence of Neurology and Director of Equity for Latino/Hispanic Healthy Aging Lab, addressed the complex puzzle of Alzheimer’s disease risk factors in women, emphasizing the importance of collaborative research efforts.

Dr. Diaz-Santos, renowned for her expertise in neurology and dedication to addressing health disparities, commenced her address by expressing gratitude for the opportunity to engage with communities. She highlighted the significance of coordinated testing, such as paper and pencil memory tests, in facilitating accurate diagnoses within interdisciplinary medical teams.

Delving into the complex question of why women are at a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Diaz-Santos debunked the notion of blame and instead likened Alzheimer’s risk factors to pieces of a puzzle. She emphasized that while various factors contribute to vulnerability throughout life, it is crucial not to attribute blame to individuals.

Drawing parallels to a puzzle, Dr. Diaz-Santos underscored the need for increased research funding to understand the underlying reasons behind Alzheimer’s disparities. She called for partnerships between academic institutions, researchers, and communities to delve deeper into the why behind Alzheimer’s risk factors, particularly in marginalized communities.

Highlighting genetics, brain pathology, inflammation, environmental stressors, and the role of trauma and discrimination, Dr. Diaz-Santos emphasized the complex interplay of factors contributing to Alzheimer’s risk in women. She urged researchers to explore these factors through collaborative efforts to develop tailored interventions.

Dr. Diaz-Santos reiterated the importance of community engagement and collaborative research in unraveling the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease. She emphasized that while researchers have made progress, there is still much to uncover, and collective action is needed to address Alzheimer’s disparities effectively.

 

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