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Purple Is the New Pink: Why Alzheimer’s Disease Is a Women’s Issue

Insights & Ideas Team •  May 18, 2015 | Focus on Women

Meryl Comer wants you to know that Americans are facing a growing epidemic—and women are its primary target. That health crisis isn’t cancer, stroke or heart disease. It’s Alzheimer’s.

“Every 67 seconds, someone in the US develops Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association (The 2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures). And nearly two-thirds of the 5.2 million Americans living with this disease are women, making it the biggest women’s health issue since breast cancer,” says Comer. “In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association reports that a woman in her 60s faces a one-in-six lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s—her chances of developing breast cancer. Despite these sobering statistics, Alzheimer’s rarely garners mention as one of the most significant threats to women’s health today.”

Comer knows what she’s talking about. A former reporter and co-founder of Women Against Alzheimer’s, she is also president and CEO of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer’s Initiative, which is dedicated to early diagnostics, global innovation challenges, and prevention-focused mobile health applications and national public awareness campaigns.

According to Comer, no one knows for sure why Alzheimer’s disproportionately targets women, both in prevalence and severity. “Today those 85 plus are the fastest growing age demographic. Since Alzheimer’s is largely a disease of aging, the longer a person lives, the greater the chances of developing dementia. But researchers are now discovering that longevity is only part of the equation; there are likely other factors at work, which we don’t yet fully understand,” says Comer.

In the meantime, the Alzheimer’s Association reports that this epidemic is expected to escalate and the number of women with Alzheimer’s disease is projected to triple from 3.2 million today to an expected 10.6 million women by 2050. And that doesn’t take into account what Comer calls Alzheimer’s second victims: the 15 million caregivers who provide unpaid care to loved ones with Alzheimer’s every day.

In her just-released New York Times best-seller, Slow Dancing With A Stranger, Comer offers an unflinching account of almost two decades as the at-home caregiver for her husband diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age 58. Many caregivers juggle work and care-giving; others, like Comer, find they have no choice but to leave their careers behind in order to meet the full-time demands of caregiving. Either way, this important role can jeopardize a caregiver’s financial security and upend their plans for the future.

The physical and emotional demands of taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s also lead caregivers to develop significant health problems of their own, including musculoskeletal pain, anxiety, depression, heart disease and stroke, according to study from the Ohio State Center for Clinical and Translational Science that appeared in the July 8, 2014 issue of ScienceDaily. And if that isn’t enough, researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine and others now suspect that caregivers may face an even more worrying prospect: that the stress and exhaustion of caregiving may also put them at an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s too.

“What upset me most is that in the nearly 20 years since I became my husband’s caregiver, little has changed: there still are no disease modifying treatments available, many physicians still refuse to make an Alzheimer’s diagnosis because they can’t treat the disease, there are no better care options and research funding is woefully inadequate,” said Comer. “Two decades ago, the average caregiver was 48-years-old and torn between the needs of their children and elderly parents. That also hasn’t changed.”

In response to these challenges and as a founding Partner of the non-profit 21st Century BrainTrust®, Comer led the launch last month of an online Health-eBrain Study, conducted in partnership with Lumosity and Anthrotronix. “Most healthcare policies shift the management burden to caregivers who are assumed to be healthy and can absorb the 24/7 work schedule and costs of care. Yet the health and wellbeing of these caregivers is very much at risk,” explained Comer. This study, which leverages the latest mobile health technologies and online cognitive assessment tests, will examine the impact of caregiving on cognitive vitality. Soon caregivers will be able to take advantage of mobile apps, like a new FDA-approved ‘brain thermometer’ that serves as an early alert system designed to both prompt engagement with doctors before small health issues escalate and provide self-monitoring to improve the quality of the caregivers’ lives.” Health related challenges, addressed in the study, translated into $9.3 billion in additional health care costs for caregivers in 2013 alone, according to a recent Alzheimer’s Association report.

Alzheimer’s disease is likely to touch one out of three Americans either as a patient, caregiver, family member or friend,” Comer said. “As women, we need to be our own best advocate and add our voices to the national conversation so that policymakers, researchers and health care providers understand that funding Alzheimer’s research is essential to unlocking diagnostic tools and treatments that help will ensure that future generations won’t experience this disease first-hand. That’s a legacy worth the fight.”

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