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Women are more vulnerable to Alzheimer and dementia

 Dementia exhibits a range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, communication, reasoning and judgement (Shutterstock)

The world marks Alzheimer’s Day on September 21 every year to raise awareness about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Organisation Kenya, dementia exhibits a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, communication, reasoning and judgement severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.

It is commonly mistaken as age-related mental decline since the condition starts out slowly and progressively gets worse with time.

This notion puts many patients at a disadvantage of suffering without a diagnosis, with the younger or middle-aged population assuming that they have more time before they start to worry about it.

Alzheimer’s forms approximately 60 to 80 per cent of dementia cases. Dementia is caused by brain cells damage and Alzheimer’s develops when proteins make it hard for brain cells to communicate with each other and stay healthy.

Gender gap in dementia

Research published in PubMed suggests that women are disproportionately affected by dementia. It is reported that the prevalence of dementia is highest among females than males in Africa, with them outnumbering their male counterparts 2 to 1.

Importantly, there seems to be a unique biological reason that makes women more vulnerable to the condition. One of the plausible predispositions that scientists are floating around is the influence of the female hormone oestrogen.

Information from the Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom shows that oestrogen has a protective role on brain cells. “Oestrogen affects how a woman’s brain grows and functions.

Researchers think this might be why women have a better memory for words and verbal items than men,” says Dr Aoife Kiely. This means that a woman who has had high oestrogen levels all her life has a lesser chance of developing dementia.

For instance, an earlier period debut, childbearing and late menopause may reduce the chances of developing dementia. Since menopause sharply declines oestrogen levels, early menopause may make a woman more vulnerable to this condition.

Oestrogen hormone replacement? Not so fast

Menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, insomnia and reduced libido are notably frustrating. Hormone replacement therapy was once considered as one way to ease menopausal symptoms in order to make the transition more bearable. However, the risk of heart disease and breast cancer outweigh the possible benefits of reduced hot flushes. The Alzheimer’s and Dementia Organisation Kenya risk reduction strategies include physical fitness, a healthy diet and keeping the brain active to pump enough oxygen and blood flow to brain cells.

Mental health and pregnancy

Most of the mental health research on motherhood in Kenya has been focused on postpartum depression and mental health needs for pregnant adolescent mothers.

According to Mastercard Foundation Scholars Faith Kipkemoi and Grace Nasike, one in eight mothers suffers serious depression or anxiety during pregnancy and after delivery. Pregnant women, especially in rural Kenya could experience mental health illnesses without them realising they could be unwell.

Pregnancy-induced brain fog

A considerable number of women experience some degree of forgetfulness and brain haziness during and after pregnancy.

They find themselves forgetting appointments, leaving their purses and car keys at unusual places and some struggle to remember crucial information. This condition that is informally known as ‘pregnancy brain’ may manifest as poor concentration, absentmindedness, and memory disturbances and to some extent, difficulty in reading.

What causes it?

Brain fog during pregnancy is quite common. However, not all women experience it. The degree of forgetfulness varies in different women. Even those who regard themselves as highly organised may find themselves finding it difficult to concentrate.

Lack of quality and sufficient sleep causes increased lack of energy, forgetfulness and absentmindedness. Therefore, adequate sleep during pregnancy is necessary for the brain to remain focused as pregnancy is sometimes associated with altered sleep patterns.

Additionally, there are usually some drastic hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy. According to research published in the National Institutes of Health, levels of some steroid hormones such as estradiol and progesterone increase by up to 30 to 70 times respectively during pregnancy.

Such fluctuations are necessary for the maintenance of pregnancy, and they may also cause major physiological changes that may affect the brain. Thankfully, these hormone flooding are temporary. The hormone levels rapidly decline within the first 48 hours after delivery.

A mother’s intuition

Most, if not all, mothers have had an intuition about something amiss and made key decisions for their children based solely on it.

And when you feel pressured to do otherwise and ignore your intuition, you most likely come to regret it later.

A mother’s intuition may not always only apply to her children, it may extend to total strangers. Like in the case of Chief Inspector Justine Ouya, who used her instincts to arrest a suspected child kidnapper who had lured two young girls away from their homes.

“Her intuition as a police officer coupled with her motherly instincts led her to be suspicious. She immediately stopped the man and interrogated him,” reads part of the statement.

Medical experts acknowledge that mothers have the ability to pick certain cues especially those related to them. From the time of gestation to birth, reproductive hormones charge mothers to be responsive in nature, making them highly specialised at detecting anything amiss.

Intuition cautions that it is better safe than sorry. However, mothers should learn to distinguish intuition from fear and anxiety of what they cannot control.

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