What we know now about women and Alzheimer's disease

New statistics show that one in six women over the age 65 will get Alzheimer's disease. The Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota and North Dakota reports that the number for men is one in 11.

And women are much more likely to become the caregivers for a loved one with Alzheimer's. That often means lost wages and a physical or emotional toll that goes beyond the dementia patient.

Debbie Richman, the Director of Education and Outreach for the Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota and North Dakota talked about the report with Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Cathy Wurzer: You know, many women worry about breast cancer. Figures indicate one in eight women will develop that disease over their lifetime, but one in six women over 65 will develop Alzheimer's. That may come as a surprise. What are researchers looking at to come to that conclusion?

Debbie Richman: I think for a long time we have known that women were at greater risk, and we've attributed that for the past number of years with respect to life expectancy. We've known that women have a slightly longer life expectancy than men. However, I think seeing these statistics now on a piece of paper, that the likelihood is really that much more significant is amazing.

Wurzer: Alzheimer's as you know is just one in a family of dementias that affect the brain. What are the risk factors for developing dementia?

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Richman: The biggest risk factor is age. Statistically over the age of 65, one in nine will develop the disease; over 85: one in three. And disregarding all of the other things that we know, for example, diabetes is a risk factor, high blood pressure is a risk factor, something we know as mild cognitive impairment is a risk factor of developing the disease. Age is by far the greatest. And we are an aging population. So these numbers rising in this particular report is the beginning in what will likely be a rise in those numbers every year.

Wurzer: You know, when people listen to this, Debbie, they're going to say, 'Great, this is bleak news. And pretty depressing. Are there no good treatments for Alzheimer's.' So when you place these numbers out there in the public, what do you want as a reaction?

Richman: I would say two things. One is that we want people to understand that for as long as we've been talking about the disease being a public health concern, it is a public health concern. These numbers prove what we've known for a long time, that this is a disease that people have to take seriously. It's not a disease just of older adults. We've lived I think under that umbrella, that, well, because age is the risk factor, it only affects the people that are you know, getting older with disease. And in reality, it affects families.

People are being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in their 50s, in their 60s, that's not old anymore. These individuals have families, they're working, and it's not just about the older population. And people need to realize that this is a very realistic possibility, because we're an aging society. The other side to that though is the Alzheimer's association in particular, a lot of what we do with programs and services are to help people plan once they get that diagnosis. So although the diagnosis can be very scary and very intimidating, and people wondering, you know, 'What do I do now?' that diagnosis is also in a way a gift, because it allows them to make plans before they're in crisis.

Wurzer: Say, I wanna circle back to something that you began talking about in our conversation. I'm not surprised about the figure that shows most women do the care-giving for a loved one with Alzheimer's, or other dementias. What's the economic impact of that?

Richman: It's significant. Last year, the statistic was that fifteen-and-a-half million caregivers provided 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care. That value is 220 billion dollars. And you take a number like that of what kind of money is going into caregiving, and if we could translate that into dollars that could go into research, and potentially finding a treatment that would be more effective, or to be able to delay the onset of this disease, it would have a significant impact on how we're currently able to manage the disease.

Wurzer: What is Minnesota doing here, Debbie, when it comes to trying to deal with Alzheimer's? I know you're at the capitol, and you're lobbying for various bills. One would include better education for caregivers --- those at assisted living facilities to help those with dementia.

Richman: Right, and we actually have two hearings scheduled today about that bill, and really to put those providers who are putting themselves out there saying, you know, 'We are taking care of individuals that have dementia, that have Alzheimer's disease, this is our business,' we want to make sure that the education they're providing to the staff is in fact the right kind of education and understanding of the disease. You can read about Alzheimer's disease, you can, you know, buy a book, you can listen to a speaker.

Understanding of the disease is one thing. Understanding an individual with the disease is something completely different. Because every person in Minnesota that has the disease is gonna be different in terms of their progression, how they respond to the disease. So training has to be varied, it has to be ongoing, because people will change. You don't stay in one particular stage of the disease throughout the duration. It evolves. And every day, and sometimes every hour can be different. And staff that are taking care of these folks directly need to understand that, and need to have the tools so that they're able to adapt to those changes as they happen.

Wurzer: Debbie Richman, thanks for joining us this morning.