Sometimes, the worst disease a loved one can face does not manifest itself with tell-tale physical signs and symptoms. Some diseases, like many forms of dementia, start slowly and quietly within the deep recesses of the brain where they can develop unnoticed and untreated.
I’m speaking of course of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a heartbreaking illness that is estimated to affect 5.3 million Americans today. Sixty five percent of those patients are women, and sixty percent of caregivers to those patients are women, too. The Boston University School of Medicine recently estimated that one in six women are at risk for developing AD during their lifetime. These are sobering odds; most individuals who have cared for an aging parent or loved one with Alzheimer’s know the far-reaching effects of the disease.
Why does Alzheimer’s affect more women than men? This is part of a larger question . . . a question science is only beginning to unravel: How does the female brain differ from its male counterpart? Unfortunately, most laboratory research today is performed on male rats because female rats have been deemed "too complex", says an article from CBC News. Anyone who’s ever been in a serious relationship knows this to be true! But sadly, such apprehension has led to fewer studies which focus specifically on the effect of Alzheimer’s disease on women. Researchers have only recently begun to identify the connection between estrogen and the risk of AD in women–a theory that might explain the disproportionate number of women with Alzheimer’s.
It is theorized that the hippocampus is one of the first areas of the brain that succumbs to Alzheimer’s. When healthy, this vital section of the brain organizes and consolidates both short and long-term memory and can be thought of as the body’s compass (it plays a central role with spatial navigation. . The question many scientists are faced with: How does estrogen affect the hippocampus?
The hippocampus is one of the main "receptor sites" in the brain for estrogen, and when it is stimulated by receipt of estrogen, positive brain processes are activated. “In addition, estrogen may, in effect, raise levels of certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). These include the neurotransmitters acetylcholine (implicated in memory), serotonin (implicated in mood), noradrenaline (implicated in mood and other autonomic functions), and dopamine (implicated in motor coordination)" according to Alzheimer’s Reading Room. Therefore, when a woman enters menopause and her estrogen levels drop, the hippocampus (and all of its important memory functions) is thereby activated less often.
Here is where research and “conclusions” become murky. What role, if any, can hormone replacement play in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease? Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Luckily, these are questions that neuroscientists are hoping to have answers to within the next 5 years, thanks to the recent explosion of estrogen-related research currently underway.
Though the future might look bright with new developments and theories, all with the common goal to better understanding this disease, the fact remains that millions of Americans deal with the ramifications of this illness each and every day. The emotional burden for caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is huge, but without the proper legal and financial preparation, the logistical burdens can be disastrous. Proper Alzheimer’s planning includes the preparation of all necessary legal documents such as Powers of Attorney and Advanced Medical Directives, as well as long-term care and nursing home planning.
If you find yourself caring for a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia don’t hesitate to call us at 1-800-399-FARR to see how we can help.
Photo By: Renjith Krishnan
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