Dementia needs gender-aware policies
IT used to be that heart disease killed more Australian women than anything else. In the last few years however, it has found a very aggressive rival which hasn’t just moved to the top of the list, but is rapidly widening the gap between first and second place.
Latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirm that more women in Australia die from dementia, and in particular Alzheimer’s (AD). The same has happened in Britain.
What’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)?
Dementia is the broad term to describe a set of neurodegenerative diseases. Just as we say “cancer”, yet there are over 100 types of cancer; we say “dementia” to encompass over 100 diseases which present as a dementia.
AD is the most common type of dementia. It is not a mental illness, but a physical disease as deadly and cunning as cancer.
While a cancer may take a life in a matter of weeks, dementia can take over a decade.
AD is brain damage which occurs when the brain’s ability to naturally process a protein found in all our brains, called beta-amyloid, collects into clumps forming plaques, which interrupt or block normal brain signals, and consequently, abilities such as memory.
It’s not known if the beta-amyloid plaque causes AD, or whether the clusters in the brain are a result from the disease’s process.
Researchers do know that mutations in “APP”, a precursor protein which forms beta-amyloid plaque, causes early onset AD.
Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging.
So, it’s a popular myth – or brush off – to say, ‘well, we’re all getting older’, as if to die prematurely in the twilight years of your life is somehow ‘okay’ or ‘normal’.
That kind of ageism (and in the context of women’s health, it can be argued as sexism as well) is a blockage of its own to finding a cure.
Globally, all the worlds’ leading dementia and Alzheimer’s organisations, including our own peak body, Dementia Australia, categorically state that dementia and Alzheimer’s is not a natural part of aging.
Women have always got old, and statistically have always lived longer than men, but today less are dying from cardiac illnesses and exponentially more from neurodegenerative diseases.
Diseases have never before been regarded as normal or natural, so why Alzheimer’s?
Dementia is a women’s health issue.
A study in the UK has found despite the disproportionate number of women affected by Alzheimer’s there’s a broad reluctance to talk about it as a women’s issue.
Just as the fight against breast cancer has taken on loud, insistent proportions, so too should the fight by women for women against dementia and in particular Alzheimer’s. But it’s just not happening.
The demand for a cure by women for women, just isn’t there.
Women’s experiences are strikingly absent from research which in turn creates gender-blind policy.
There is real opportunity here for a whole-society rethink of dementia in terms of the experience of women, not only as people living with the disease, but also the high number of women who care for them and the kind of support they in turn need.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation held its first Ministerial Conference on Global Action Against Dementia which found most countries are inadequately or not at all dealing with the high impact dementia has on women.
Alzheimer’s Disease International released a report recently called “Women and Dementia: A Global Research Review”.
It found there is little evidence globally of policy being put into place and actioned in response to the disproportionate number of women affected.
There are great hopes in the Royal Commission into the Aged Care Industry, and that its outcomes will mean standards of care and protections are raised.
For outcomes to be gender driven, and focusing on women’s needs, there is opportunity here for women to defend the rights of women who live now with dementia, who care for someone with dementia, but also to establish women-centric policy for themselves – and their daughters – around a disease which is a women’s health issue, globally.