Alzheimer’s: Largely a Woman’s Issue

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Recently the Alzheimer’s Association teamed up with California’s First Lady Maria Shriver and issued The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s, based on a survey of 3,118 American adults about the experience and impact of Alzheimer’s disease. The report found that Alzheimer’s is disproportionately a woman’s problem. Two-thirds of the disease’s sufferers are women. And 60% of unpaid caretakers of Alzheimer’s patients (usually family members) are women. In total, 10 million or 6.4% of all American women are affected by the disease.

In my colleague Alice Park’s recent TIME Magazine cover story about Alzheimer’s, she revealed that a 65-year-old has a 10% chance of developing the disease. With 78 million baby boomers reaching peak age for diagnosis in the next few years, Alzheimer’s will add an additional $627 billion burden to our health care system — more than doubling our current Alzheimer’s costs of about $300 billion a year. (More on Photos: My Aging Father’s Decline: A Son’s Photo Journal).

The burden will extend to the unpaid caregivers as well, who are already lacking sufficient societal support. The Shriver Report states:

Unpaid family caregivers are on the frontlines of the battle against Alzheimer’s. Over 11.2 million Americans provide billions of hours of unpaid care to people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia. More often than not, women report stepping up to become the caregiver because no one else in their family will do it, and 40 percent of them say they had no choice. One-third of female Alzheimer and dementia caregivers are part of the Sandwich Generation, with children or grandchildren under the age of 18 living in their homes; as a result, women face a double burden. Caregivers’ own heath care costs an additional $4 billion a year due to the emotional and physical stress and strain of caregiving.

Caregiving at home almost always affects work and other responsibilities, and A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s finds that working women feel they get less support for elder care than they do for child care. Almost half of women caregivers report they have tried to get time off from work for their caregiving duties, but couldn’t get it.

Inadequate support for caregivers is not unique to Alzheimer’s, but as the disease’s numbers rise, the sheer volume of family members called to care-taking duty will have a real impact on the workforce and in communities.

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