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While it’s true that Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t discriminate, it’s also a fact that the disease affects women much more than men.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, women over the age of 65 have a one-in-six chance of developing memory loss, compared to a one-in-11 chance for men of the same age. Why is it that women have a greater risk of developing the disease than men? Researchers are still looking for the answer. But here are some clues:

Women have twice the risk of developing depression compared to men

Depression is linked to higher Alzheimer’s risk and women are twice as likely to have depression than men. While the link between depression and Alzheimer’s isn’t completely understood, researchers can trace depression to shrinking of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory function. The hippocampus is important for memory formation in women, but was not found to be important in men.

Women exercise less than men

We know that staying physically active is a great way to decrease one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study reported that women who were at high fitness level were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia compared to those who were at a medium fitness level. On average, though, women typically exercise less than men. This can be somewhat explained by some of the roles women take on, being more involved in child-rearing and caregiving later in life.

Women have a higher caregiver burden than men

Speaking of caregiving, 60 percent of family caregivers, including caregivers for family members with dementia, are women. Studies show that full-time caregivers of a loved one may actually be at a higher risk of developing dementia compared to non-caregivers. Plus, female caregivers are more likely to change their lifestyles compared to male caregivers, often giving up their job, moving or changing their living arrangements in order to provide care.

ApoE4 affects women and men differently

We now know of a gene that’s linked to Alzheimer’s, called Apolipoprotein E (or ApoE), that can help doctors predict if someone will develop the disease later on. So far, we’ve discovered that the ApoE4 gene affects men and women differently. When studying women and men, women with this gene were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those without the gene. Men with the gene, however, were only slightly more likely to develop the disease.

Women have historically received less education than men

Some studies have shown that that those with less education have an increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who have more education and further their careers throughout middle or later life. We know that activities that exercise our brains can decrease the chances or delay the onset of dementia. In the past, women were less educated than men and were more likely to take on homemaker roles rather than enter into careers, which could explain the higher risk for dementia. However, the education and career gap between men and women has been closing in the past few decades, so this does not explain the reason why more women are developing dementia these days.

What you can do to lower your risk

We’ve seen that some of the reasons why women are more likely than men to develop Alzheimer’s disease are things we can’t really change – women’s longer lives and certain genetic factors, for example. Some risk factors, however — like not being as physically active as men — you can do something about. Here are a few more:

Challenge and activate your mind.

Build a piece of furniture. Complete a jigsaw puzzle. Do something artistic. Play games that have strategy, such as bridge. Challenging your mind may have short-term and long-term benefits for your brain.

Don’t smoke.

Smoking has been shown to raise the risk of dementia. Quitting smoking can lower that risk to levels that compare to non-smokers.

Eat a healthy diet.

A healthy, balanced diet that’s lower in fat and higher in vegetables and fruit can help maintain normal brain health.

Get enough sleep.

Poor sleep because of problems like insomnia or sleep apnea may lead to problems with memory and thinking.

Keep learning.

Formal education in any stage of life will help reduce your risk of decline in brain function and dementia. A class at a local college, community center or online can be a great way to keep your brain active and healthy.

Maintain good heart health.

Risk factors for heart disease and stroke such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes have been shown to decrease brain health too.

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