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Women and Dementia: A Marginalised Majority

Katy Riddick

A report being released today by Alzheimer’s Research UK highlights the enormous toll of dementia on women in the UK.  They face a triple whammy: dementia is now the leading cause of death among UK women; women are also far more likely to end up as carers of friends or relatives with dementia– suffering physical and emotional stress and job losses in the process; and women are more likely to leave science early in their careers meaning we lose out on valuable research expertise.

View the interactive Women and Dementia infographic

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which releases information about registered deaths, 12.2% of all women in the UK died as a direct result of dementia in 2013. The diseases that cause dementia led to the death of over 31,000 women. It’s important to note that there is no evidence as yet that women are more likely than men to get dementia at any given age, but because women live longer than men and age is the leading risk factor for developing the condition, more women develop the condition.

As a woman, you are more likely to die of dementia than of breast cancer, heart disease or stroke. The ONS credits the overall rise in the number of deaths attributed to dementia to better understanding of the condition among doctors and the public, particularly with Alzheimer’s disease, meaning that when we compare more recent statistics to figures from a decade ago, we see more instances of dementia because its health impacts are only now being noted and recorded.

Our goal with the report Women and Dementia: A Marginalised Majority is to shed light on the unique impact of dementia on women, including the stress and demands caring for someone with the condition. One fifth of women carers have had to reduce their work hours, and nearly as many have felt penalised at work because of their caregiving responsibilities. Many carers report feeling isolated and in need of greater support, but for the 60-70% of unpaid carers of people with dementia who are women, the experience is more likely to lead to depression. All too often, women are carrying the responsibility of care for their loved ones, only later to be living with the condition themselves.

Our report will launch at the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre in London, where we will host a session at noon today. The line-up includes: Valerie Blumenthal talking about her experience living with a form of dementia called PCA; Dr Selina Wray will outline her current research at University College London and how it may benefit people with dementia in the future; Shaheen Larrieux, whose mother is affected by FTD, will share her experiences as a carer and the impacts on her career; Dr Elizabeth Barrett will discuss her work as a dementia ambassador, as well as challenges she faces as a GPs making diagnoses and supporting people with dementia; and Valerie Bingham talking about her experiences as a carer for her husband, the impact of Alzheimer’s disease and how writing about those experiences have helped her to cope with his condition. The experiences of this diverse group of women represent a number of the different ways in which a woman might be affected by dementia in her lifetime.

The breadth of human medical knowledge is growing at an astonishing rate, but we must recognise that dementia remains one of the greatest medical challenges of our time and until a treatment is found it weighs heavily on the lives of women. Overall, the news about our mortality is actually good – people, and women in particular, are living longer, and healthier lives. We can see from health data that we have made significant progress battling the conditions that have attacked women’s bodies for so long. Pregnancy and birth no longer represent a serious threat to a woman’s health, and we have remarkable medical advances to fight breast and ovarian cancers, as well as a myriad of other health conditions that affect women. For all the gifts that our bodies give us, it is our minds that now need protecting.

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