This post is written by Jill Lesser, President of WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s
September 21 marks the seventh annual World Alzheimer’s Day – a prime opportunity to talk about where we’ve come from, where we currently stand, and where we must direct our focus for the future of those living with Alzheimer’s.
Arguably, the most significant hurdle we must address immediately is a society-wide lack of awareness for Alzheimer’s and dementia. And we’re starting with women. This disease touches everyone but it targets females. Alzheimer’s is not gender neutral. It affects women far more than me – both as people living with the disease and those that take one the role of caregiver.
Two out of every three people suffering from Alzheimer’s is a woman. And according to one survey, just 27% of women realize they are more susceptible to the disease simple because of their gender. More than two thirds of women wrongly believe that symptoms don’t start to appear until age 60. And nearly half wrongly think that Alzheimer’s is strictly genetic.
Given the scale of this disease, these numbers are particularly alarming.
We recently teamed up with HealthyWomen and participated in the WomenTalk survey to learn more about women’s attitudes towards brain health. There was good news and bad.
The survey found that just 29% of women say they discuss the topic occasionally, and a mere 8% say they talk about it regularly.
Fewer than one in five say they’ve taken steps to protect the health of their parents, and just three in ten say they’ve taken steps to protect the brain health of their children.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that, nearly two-thirds of women say they are worried about the health and performance of their brains. And more than two thirds are interested in learning more about the subject.
In other words, most women want to know more, and would take action if they knew what they could do.
Health data show that women over age 60 are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than breast cancer. They are also far more likely to end up taking care of parents living with the disease. Women, in fact, comprise two-thirds of voluntary caregivers. For many women today, the challenge of caring for a loved one is doubled because many are trying to raise children while tending to their parents’ full-time care needs. As someone who has lived this, I can tell you that the stress can be relentless. And, as numerous studies show, caregiver’s health almost always suffers as well.
There are a number of things we can do now to see progress.
- We need to set an example for the ones we love and get moving. Studies show that regular physical activity is good for the brain. Yet only 23% of Americans meet the national minimum physical activity guidelines. Women have the power to influence each other and their loved ones to live healthier lives and the best way to do so is to lead by example.
- We need to start spending time educating women about the risks they face. While doing so, we need to raise awareness of the steps that women can take to improve their brains. And it’s more than just brain games and a healthy diet. Start from square one and check in on your brains at the next checkup. Get to know your baseline and start measuring changes as they happen, before memory becomes a concern.
- We must advocate for a healthcare system that works for women. The public health community, led by women, has done a masterful job of raising awareness for women’s health issues such as heart disease and breast cancer. But these changes have only come when women demanded them. It’s time we come together and advocate for women’s health across the lifespan – applying the same level of dedication and enthusiasm to making women aware of the need to focus on their brains.
Everyone wishes for a cure for Alzheimer’s. And one day – hopefully one day soon – the cure will be discovered. Until then, we need to do everything we can to raise women’s awareness of their own risks, and what they can do to minimize them.
As a society, we need to not only direct more resources at Alzheimer’s. We need to make sure that the money we spend on research, health care, support services, and education targets the women who disproportionately carry the burden of Alzheimer’s.
On this, the 7th World Alzheimer’s Day, we need to recognize that this fight is as much about social justice for women, as it is about treatments and a cure for this relentless disease.