Health & Wellness

Why are women more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease than men?

In a disease riddled with unknowns, it's one of Alzheimer's biggest mysteries: Why do women make up two-thirds of cases? An innovative new study may offer some insights and help develop effective treatments.

November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month and as part of our Brain Power TODAY series, NBC special anchor Maria Shriver met with a neurologist determined to find the answers. Dr. Richard Isaacson runs the country's first Alzheimer's prevention clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, treating younger people at risk for the disease decades before symptoms show up.

Go here for more information about Dr. Isaacson’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, his studies of Alzheimer’s, and the lifestyle habits that may delay or prevent symptoms.

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Why do women get Alzheimer's disease twice as often as men?

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Why do women get Alzheimer's disease twice as often as men?

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Most people think they don’t have to worry about Alzheimer's until they're in their 70s or 80s, but that’s a misconception, Isaacson said.

“Alzheimer's starts in the brain 20 to 30 years before the first symptom of memory loss," he told TODAY. "That's shocking to some people. When it comes to women, there are biological changes, metabolism changes in the brain — that happens decades before.”

This month, he's launching a new, potentially revolutionary study, monitoring 75 women, ages 40 to 65, who are at risk for Alzheimer's, trying to pinpoint early changes in their bodies that may lead to the disease.

“What is that very first sign? Is it a change in the brain that we can detect? Is it a change in a blood marker that we can detect?” Isaacson wants to know. “There are endocrine changes. There are hormone changes. For example, the menopause transition — could that be a trigger?”

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Mom with Alzheimer's repeatedly rejoices at daughter's baby news

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Mom with Alzheimer's repeatedly rejoices at daughter's baby news

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Over the four year study, subjects will receive regular blood screens, brain scans, and cognitive tests to track changes in their bodies that correlate with the early signs of Alzheimer's. Isaacson hopes to ultimately enroll 400 women in the research, but he needs more private funding to do so.

Alyssa Langel joined the study after her grandmother died of the disease.

“As a result of that experience, losing her, I decided that I need to do whatever I could to help change the outcome for future generations of my family and others,” she said.

Many women wonder whether they should take hormones to protect their body and brain, Shriver pointed out. There's not a one-size-fits-all approach, Isaacson replied: Certain women may benefit, while other may not. “These are the things we need to figure out,” he said.

But Isaacson says there are steps you can take right now that may help delay symptoms, including daily, rigorous exercise; eating a Mediterranean diet; reducing stress; and getting plenty of sleep.

You have to make the time to incorporate those healthy lifestyle habits, he urged women and men.

“This is your brain. One out of three cases of Alzheimer's may be preventable if that person does everything right. The other two out of three cases, we're not there yet,” Isaacson said. “If we can delay the onset of Alzheimer's by six months, a year, or two years, and in that interval that blockbuster drug comes, well, that person, through lifestyle and other choices, prevented their own Alzheimer's disease.”

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