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Investigating differences in dementia risk between men and women

Women have an increased risk of developing dementia compared to men, though little is known about the reason why.

Geriatrician Dr Stephanie Than is undertaking a PhD investigating gender differences in dementia risk at middle and older life.

“We understand that the females are associated with an increased risk of dementia worldwide, however the mechanisms for this increased risk are currently unclear,” explains Stephanie.

“Increasing age is the strongest risk factor for dementia. It is probable that events in mid-life play a critical role, because changes in the brain likely occur decades prior to the development of the cognitive symptoms associated with dementia in later life. There are a number of potential biological mechanisms, including menopause which occurs at mid-life and is unique to women.”

For the first part of her research, Stephanie is conducting an analysis of the UK Biobank data, a population-based study of people aged 40-69 at time of recruitment.

She will study data from around 5,000 people at different phases of mid-life.

“I will be comparing brain volumes between men and women, and brain volumes between pre and post menopausal women,” says Stephanie.

“Using statistical techniques, I intend to analyse whether the differences seen between these groups in brain volumes are amplified by increasing age – even during mid-life.”

Preliminary findings from this analysis show this may be the case.

“I am finding that there are differences in brain volumes between sexes, and this difference is greater with each year of advancing age during mid-life,” adds Stephanie.

“To investigate what may be driving this difference, I examined brain volumes in women only, and found that the effect of age on brain volumes is greatest in post menopausal women.”

“I plan to undertake further work to understand the biological mechanisms driving these differences.”

Understanding how such factors at mid-life contribute to dementia risk in later life provides a window of opportunity for preventative or risk minimisation strategies.

“Unfortunately, current treatments for dementia are inadequate and don’t modify the disease itself, they only treat the symptoms,” explains Stephanie.

“I think that further understanding the mechanisms driving these relationships will potentially help us develop new ways to prevent or delay neurodegeneration and reduce the risk of dementia.”

For the next stage of her research, Stephanie plans to conduct a similar analysis of a twin study.

What is dementia?*

+ Dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Brain function is affected enough to interfere with the person’s normal social or working life

+ In 2019, there are an estimated 447,115 Australians living with dementia. Without a medical breakthrough, the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to 589,807 by 2028 and 1,076,129 by 2058

+ Dementia is the leading cause of death for Australian women and the third leading cause of death for Australian men

Source: Dementia Australia

This article was first published in the 2019 Research Report. Read the Research Report online here.