Last week’s news brought special attention to women and Alzheimer’s disease when Maria Shriver, California’s first lady, testified at a special Senate hearing on aging. Shriver, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2003, in collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association, recently published The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s. The Shriver Report serves as an alarm to all Americans, but particularly women, as research has never before made such a strong connection between women and Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the report, women are doubly burdened when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, because not only are they slightly more likely to suffer from the disease than men, but they are also much more likely to serve as caregivers for others suffering from Alzheimer’s. Women make up about two thirds of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s, mostly because they have a longer life expectancy than men. Women are also more likely to live with obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol or receive hormone replacement therapy, all of which increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Over five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and almost two thirds of those victims are women.
Women outnumber men in the care-giving profession, explaining why they are more likely to care for Alzheimer’s patients. According to the Shriver Report, women make up sixty percent of the caregivers for Alzheimer’s victims and one third of these women work in a 24/7 position. Many of these women are unpaid, caring for mothers or fathers, and almost forty percent of these women report that they didn’t have a choice in becoming a caregiver. The problem with so many women caregivers is that they are often giving care in addition to working another job. This requires women to go to work late, leave early, or take time off work to care for an Alzheimer’s victim. Financial support for elder care, if available, is much less than childcare support. As a result, women in these situations face high emotional and physical stress and the overall societal impact of Alzheimer’s disease is approximately $300 billion per year.
Shriver, The Alzheimer’s Association, and The Shriver Report have effectively brought the issue of women and Alzheimer’s disease to the forefront of American health care debate. It’s up to women now to advocate for better research on how to prevent this detrimental disease and for more support for overworked caregivers.