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Alzheimer's Research Neglects Women

Even though women are twice as likely as men to develop Alzheimer's, most research on the disease that devastates brain cells is done on men whose brains are fundamentally different.

The Daily Mail is reporting that researchers are calling attention to the fact that too much Alzheimer research focuses on male brains rather than where it should focus - on the brains of females where the disease is most likely to strike.

"We need much better data about gender differences," says Glenda Gillies, professor of neuroendocrine pharmacology at Imperial College London, who researches the effect of drugs and hormones on the brain.

"It’s women who are losing out because of this. And because they live longer, at any one time significantly more women will have the disease than men. So we need to know a lot more about what works for them."

Larry Cahill, professor of neurobiology at the University of California explained that victims of Alzheimer's develop clumps of damaged proteins, called plagues and tangles in their brains. However, the tangles are found in different areas of the male and female brain.

Most male sufferers of the disease have tangles in the hypothalamus, an area in the center of the brain that controls hunger, eating and sex. Women, on the other hand, tend to have the tangles in an area involving in controlling production of a neurochemical called acetylocholine. The reason for these differences, and what impact they have on the Alzheimer sufferer, has not been properly researched.

Another study done by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that even though men and women might have the same amount of tangles in their brains, women suffer more severely from them.

While it is known that estrogen, a female hormone, seems to protect the brain, no one has investigated why symptoms vary so much between men and women.

Researchers from Kansas University found that offspring of a mother with Alzheimer's has twice the risk of developing the disease than if their father had it.

"The assumption sex influences may be safely ignored by neurobiologists is invalid and must be abandoned," wrote Professor Cahill in the June issue of the journal Endocrinology.

His feelings are echoed by Lynn Posluns, founder of Women's Brain Health Initiative, a charity that encourages research into male-female differences in Alzheimer's, says neglecting to focus on women rather than men in medical research is not new.

"Twenty years ago, doctors were less likely to spot a woman was having a heart attack because they misinterpreted symptoms," she said. "Doctors were trained that the classic symptom of a heart attack — a stabbing pain in the heart and pain down the left arm — applied to women, too. But female heart attack symptoms can include nausea, breathlessness, an upset stomach and a feeling of exhaustion."

As a result, women took longer to get vital treatment, she said.

"We are determined not to let it happen all over again with Alzheimer’s."

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