Dementia, regardless of its cause, is a progressive condition, with deterioration likely to occur in all domains. It is a distressing and often frightening illness for the individual and can be perceived as stigmatising and heartbreaking for
family members. The disease impacts on memory, language, ability to communicate, mood and personality. Currently there are approximately 42,000 people with dementia in Ireland. By 2036 however, it is estimated that this figure will rise to 103,998. Gererally those with dementia are cared for by a family member, a home care provider or in a residential setting.

Dementia has no single cause and no cure. Many known and unknown environmental and genetic risk factors can influence the age of onset. Despite a whole myriad of risk factors (including cardio-vascular) contributing to the different dementia sub-types, increasing age remains by far the single strongest risk factor for dementia. Accordingly, people aged 90 and over run a 50% heightened risk of developing a dementia compared with those aged 60. In the past and up until the early 1980s a distinction was made between old-age dementia and Alzheimer’s disease –then considered a rare form of dementia affecting younger people under 65.

Despite all this no one has yet to figure out the definitive cause for Alzheimer’s disease. But now a new study has unearthed a clue as to why more women than men develop the condition.

Stanford University researchers analyzed data from more than 8,000 people, most older than 60, who were tracked between 2005 and 2013 at about 30 Alzheimer’s centers across the United States. In general, having a copy of a certain gene variant known as the ApoE4 variant upped the risk of Alzheimer’s. But women with a copy of this variant were about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those who didn’t have it.

The study, published in the April 14 issue of the Annals of Neurology, could lead to the development of gender-specific treatments for Alzheimer’s.

The number of women with Alzheimer’s far exceeds that of men with the condition. That’s partly because women on average live longer than men. But greater longevity explains only part of women’s increased susceptibility to Alzheimer’s. “Even after correcting for age, women appear to be at greater risk,” said Dr. Michael Greicius, assistant professor of neurology and neurological sciences and medical director of the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders, in a written release.

Greicius, the study’s lead author who — in addition to his research — spends about one-fifth of his time seeing patients, said that the differential male/female ApoE4 effect implies that clinicians need to take different approaches to patients with this gene variant, depending on their sex.

“These days, a lot of people are getting genotyped either in the clinic or commercially. People come to me and say, ‘I have an ApoE4 gene, what should I do?’ If that person is a man, I would tell him that his risk is not increased much if at all. If it’s a woman, my advice will be different,” he said.

The study is just the latest breakthrough in the Alzheimer’s arena.

Last year, a massive Alzheimer’s study found new genes linked to late-onset Alzheimer’s, giving scientists clues on how to create better drugs to fight the disease.

In another study, researchers found that early detection may be the best cure. Medications for Alzheimer’s typically fail, researchers believe, because symptoms have generally progressed and it can be difficult to reverse the damage. Early detection of the disease could give doctors a chance to administer treatment, potentially delaying or even stopping the progression.

Generally speaking, even when dementia isn’t the direct cause of death, it can lead to respiratory failure, choking, pneumonia or various other serious health conditions.