By ANITA BUTCHER
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is now the second leading cause of death among Australians, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
And the disease is killing almost double the amount of women as men — at a rate of one in10 in comparison to one in 19.
While the specific reasons behind this were unknown, there were several theories surrounding the gender difference, CEO of Alzheimer’s Australia Carol Bennett said.
“Women live longer than men on average,” Ms Bennett said. “And as people are living longer, they’re more likely to die from dementia.”
Professor Stephen Robinson is the deputy head of Health Sciences at RMIT, and he agreed with this theory.
“It may be pertinent that men tend to die four to five years earlier than women, from health complications such as heart disease, obstructive lung disease and lung cancer,” he said.
“Perhaps if they didn’t die from those diseases, they would have gone on to develop Alzheimer’s disease instead.”
The biological make-up of women could also be impacting upon the gender difference.
“Women have a different hormonal physiology which might increase their chances of developing dementia; however, this has not been fully proven yet,” Ms Bennett said.
Although age increases the risk factor of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, it is not the sole cause.
“There are well over 25,000 people living with dementia under the age of 65 here in Australia…some of those are as young as 20,” Ms Bennett said.
“So it’s not simply that people are ageing — there is another factor here, but we’re not quite sure what that is.”
Ms Bennett highlighted the need for more research to be done on the specific causes of dementia, which would in turn inspire a cure to be developed.
“The Federal Government recently committed $200 million to dementia research, but we need to see a lot more done to keep up with our ageing population,” she said.
Dementia is diagnosed by a combination of psychological tests that measure cognitive performance, and by self-report from the patient or close family members.
Professor Robinson said this was unreliable and made it harder to detect.
“Repeated cognitive testing is separated by a year or so, to establish whether there is a progressive decline in function,” he said.
“Relying on self-reports from the patient or their family also makes the disease hard to diagnose as it’s very subjective.”
Currently, the disease can only be treated by approved drug treatments, which halt the cognitive decline only for the first year.
Eventually the decline continues.
“Current evidence indicates the likelihood of developing dementia can be diminished during mid-life by following healthy dietary and exercise regimes,” Professor Robinson said.
Alzheimer’s Australia and other international organisations will continue to research dementia and Alzheimer’s disease until a cure is found.