According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 6 women are diagnosed with the cognitive disease, while only 1 in 11 men are. Researchers say this new information aligns with the well-documented fact that women are more likely to have Alzheimer’s and adds to the evidence that stress hormones impact each gender’s brain health differently.
“We can’t get rid of stressors, but we might adjust the way we respond to stress, and have a real effect on brain function as we age,” said Cynthia Munro, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
To look into the gender disparity further, Munro and her team analyzed data collected from more than 900 Baltimore, MD residents in a National Institute of Mental Health survey.
The study’s participants were originally recruited in the early 1980s and have had multiple check-ins over the years, with the last one being in 2005. During the final two check-ins, the participants were asked if they had experienced a traumatic event in the past year (something akin to a car accident or physical abuse) or a stressful life experience (like the loss of a job or a divorce). Then, their memory skills were tested. While most reported a decline in memory, which is considered normal as people age, women who had experienced stressful life moments had the poorest showing.
Popular Science reports that previous studies show the amount of cortisol produced in response to stress increases with age, the bodies of women in their 60s and 70s can produce up to three times as much as men who are the same age.
“A normal stress response causes a temporary increase in stress hormones like cortisol, and when it’s over, levels return to baseline and you recover. But with repeated stress, or with enhanced sensitivity to stress, your body mounts an increased and sustained hormone response that takes longer to recover,” said Munro. “We know if stress hormone levels increase and remain high, this isn’t good for the brain’s hippocampus — the seat of memory.”
And other research has shown that stressful life experiences can result in temporary memory and cognitive problems. So, stress reduction or management, something that hasn’t been adequately studied compared to other causes of Alzheimer’s, could be a way to delay or prevent the disease.