Sofia Petersson, 43, is an administrator and mum-of-two from Sweden. A few years ago, she began feeling extreme and constant tiredness. Concerned, she visited her GP for a check-up. After multiple appointments and undergoing a series of tests, results eventually came back that no woman her age would expect to receive: Sofia had tested positive for Alzheimer’s disease. She was 39.
Sofia wasn’t suffering from memory loss, the symptom most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. She was repeatedly told not to worry about the tiredness, and prescribed iron tablets which didn’t help, so it took more than a year to be diagnosed. Four years later, she has had to adapt to life with the disease. She has reduced her working hours to four a day, and her children – now 16 and 19 – help her at home.
“It sucks having Alzheimer’s, and I feel sad because there’s nothing I can do about it,” Sofia, who blogs about living with Alzheimer’s says. “I’m tired all the time, and slower in my head. I have to keep myself calm because, if I find myself in a stressful situation, my mind just doesn’t work at all.”
Globally, women with dementia like Sofia outnumber men by two to one. Women make up 500,000 of the 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, and up to 70 per cent of carers for people with dementia are also female. Despite this, science is still a long way from understanding how sex and gender affect your risk of developing dementia. In fact, it’s only in the last three years researchers have even begun to scratch the surface.
Dr Antonella Santuccione Chadha is a doctor and co-founder of the Women’s Brain Project, an organisation advocating for women’s brain and mental health. The project began three years ago when scientists came together to debate what some prominent female American philanthropists were saying: dementia is more prevalent in women.
“This wasn’t scientifically grounded at the time, so we decided to look at the science and find out if it was true. We didn’t expect it to become the Women’s Brain Project, but I think it was timely and identified an unmet need in the medical field,” Dr Santuccione Chadha says. “It was not previously known these sex differences might exist, and therefore they weren’t reflected in drug development or considered in preclinical science.”
So, what do we know so far?