Saturday, September 15, 2018
Reprinted from: bit.ly/2ogyMb6 and bit.ly/2odAjP9 CMAJ, online August 27, 2018.
By Linda Carroll
(Reuters Health) - As America’s population ages, experts are exploring how best to keep older people with multiple chronic illnesses healthy. A new study suggests that coordination between physicians may be key.
In a reanalysis of 25 earlier studies including 12,579 patients, researchers found that coordination of care for older adults with multiple medical conditions resulted in improved health. Patients in the study had combinations of disorders such as heart failure and obstructive lung disease, arthritis and depression, diabetes and depression, or diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Currently more than 62 percent of older Americans have multiple chronic conditions, the researchers noted in CMAJ. And many of those seniors receive care from a variety of specialists who don’t communicate with one another.
“To address the challenges faced by our rapidly aging population, we need to focus on a more patient-oriented and holistic strategy that targets management of patients with common disease combinations, such as diabetes and depression, rather than treating one disease at a time,” said study leader Monika Kastner, a health services researcher at the University of Toronto, Canada, and research chair at North York General Hospital.
Care coordination, Kastner explained in an email, can be defined as efforts by health care professionals to facilitate and coordinate appropriate, timely and efficient delivery of health care services for a patient.
The average age in the studies was 67. One area where coordination made a big difference was in patients who had a chronic physical condition along with depression. For example, patients with both depression and diabetes had improvements in both depressive symptoms and blood sugar levels when they got coordinated care.
The new article “takes us in the right direction,” said Michael Wolf, associate vice chair of research in the department of medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Wolf has personal experience with a problem that’s common when care is fragmented: the possibility that doctors will provide a patient with overlapping medications.
“My sister at one point was on 24 medications,” he said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t till she was hospitalized that a surgeon pointed out that she was taking multiple medications to treat the same thing. They had been prescribed by different people. When she left the hospital, the number had been reduced to six or seven.”
Presently, however, there is no template to show health care providers how to accomplish coordinated care with the system set up the way it is, Wolf pointed out.
There are a number of reasons why patients rarely get coordinated care, said Dr. Alicia Arbaje, director of translational care research in the division of geriatric medicine and gerontology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Top on the list is the way practitioners are reimbursed, Arbaje said by phone. And beyond that, “we haven’t caught up in our training of physicians to learn how to work with other providers or even as a team,” she added. “Also, we don’t have a culture of accountability. In the culture we have, once a patient is out of the hospital, that patient is now someone else’s responsibility. And the same is true outside the hospital.”
Patients often assume that their doctors are all on the same page, Arbaje said. “I think some levers could get moved if there was some outrage from the public,” she added. “People asking why isn’t care done this way.”
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Reprinted from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/world/europe/dementia-care-treatment-symptoms-signs.html
By Christopher F. Schuetze
By Christopher F. Schuetze
Aug. 22, 2018
DOETINCHEM, Netherlands — “We’re lost,” said Truus Ooms, 81, to her friend Annie Arendsen, 83, as they rode a city bus together.
“As the driver, you should really know where we are,” Ms. Arendsen told Rudi ten Brink, 63, who sat at the wheel of the bus.
But she was joking.
The three are dementia patients at a care facility in the eastern Netherlands. Their bus ride — a route on the flat, tree-lined country roads of the Dutch countryside — was a simulation that plays out several times a day on three video screens.
It is part of an unorthodox approach to dementia treatment that doctors and caregivers across the Netherlands have been pioneering: harnessing the power of relaxation, childhood memories, sensory aids, soothing music, family structure and other tools to heal, calm and nurture the residents, rather than relying on the old prescription of bed rest, medication and, in some cases, physical restraints.
“The more stress is reduced, the better,” said Dr. Erik Scherder, a neuropsychologist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and one of the country’s best-known dementia care specialists. “If you can lower stress and discomfort, it has a direct physiological effect.”
Simulated trips in buses or on beaches — like one in a care facility in Haarlem, not far from a real beach — create a gathering point for patients. The shared experience lets them talk about past trips and take a mini holiday from their daily lives.
Dementia, a group of related syndromes, manifests itself in a steep decline in brain functions. The condition steals memories and personalities. It robs families of their loved ones and saps resources, patience and finances.
Up to 270,000 Dutch people — roughly 8.4 percent of the 3.2 million residents over the age of 64 — have dementia, and the government expects that number to double in the next 25 years.
In recent years, the government has preferred to pay for home care rather than in a licensed facility so most people with dementia live at home. The facilities, which are privately run but publicly funded, are generally reserved for people in an advanced state of the disease.
In the 1990s, the Dutch started thinking differently about how to treat the disease, moving away from a medicalized approach.
“In the ’80s, clients were treated like patients in a hospital,” said Ilse Achterberg, a former occupational therapist, who was one of the pioneers of “snoezel” rooms, which feature light, aroma, massage and sound therapy, and let patients relax and access emotions that are often blocked in stressful clinical settings.
These rooms were the forerunner of some of the techniques found today in many care facilities in the Netherlands.
At the Amstelring Leo Polak home in Amsterdam, for example, there is a reproduction of a city bus stop, where Jan Post, a 98-year-old patient, often sits and kisses his wife, Catharina Post, when she visits.
Mr. Post, who has severe dementia, can create only 10 seconds of short-term memory and is afraid of not finding his way back to his room when he leaves it.
“Seventy years married and we are still in love,” said Ms. Post, 92, who visits several times a week.
The Posts were drinking and chatting recently at Bolle Jan, a re-creation of an actual Amsterdam cafe in a common area of the home.
If the surroundings were fake, the alcohol was real, and the jokes, often repeated, drew real guffaws. The singing, at times wobbly, was enthusiastic.
While caregivers and academics believe that such environments help dementia patients cope better, solid evidence for their long-lasting effectiveness is hard to come by, in part because the condition has no cure.
But Katja Ebben, who is the intensive care manager at Vitalis Peppelrode, a home in Eindhoven, in the southeast of the country, said she had noticed that with the newer techniques, patients need less medication and fewer physical restraints.
Willy Briggen, 89, who is in an advanced stage of dementia, lives at the Eindhoven home.
Like many with dementia, Ms. Briggen sometimes becomes impatient, even unruly. The outbursts put a strain on the home’s staff, who struggle to deal with her frail frame. A decade ago, she might have been prescribed drugs or restrained to manage the outbreaks.
But when she gets upset, the staff rolls a squat projector into her room, where it beams out calming images and plays soothing sounds.
On a recent visit, Ms. Briggen went from an obvious state of emotional discomfort to calm reflection as she gazed at the ceiling of her private room, which was festooned with projected nature scenes, including of ducks.
Of the 210 residents at the Eindhoven home, 90 have dementia and are restricted to special floors for their safety.
The brick-and-glass building has linoleum floors, low ceilings and wide doors to accommodate beds on wheels. Despite the medical style, its décor has echoes of a bygone era, when Ms. Briggen would have been a girl.
The floors feature old-fashioned, dark-wood furniture, and the rooms are decorated with books, rotary-dial phones and 50-pound typewriters. The cafeteria’s tables are covered by tablecloths and freshly cut flowers. It does not smell like a hospital.
In rethinking how to deal with dementia patients, many care centers have focused on the surroundings. Another tactic is to reorganize residents to create “family” clusters of six to 10 people.
Residents in many Dutch facilities have their own rooms, which they are encouraged to view as their own domain. There is often a communal living room and a kitchen, where residents help with chores like peeling potatoes and washing salad.
In the fight against depression and passivity, which are often symptoms of the condition, care givers also try to stimulate residents with activities like dancing.
“It’s really about all the little things that make a normal life,” said Pamela Grootjans, a nurse at Sensire Den Ooiman, the facility in Doetinchem that offers the simulated bus ride.
In the Christian Beth-San special care home in Moerkapelle, close to The Hague, Arie Pieter Hofman, 87, and Neeltje Hofman-Heij, 88, use a simulated bike connected to a treadmill to race through scenes from their old neighborhood in Gouda, projected onto a flat-screen display.
The company that makes the bike tour, Bike Labyrinth, has sold the simulators to more than 500 homes in the Netherlands. The Dutch maker of the projectors, Qwiek, says it has units in 750 Dutch care homes.
“The idea is to challenge the patient a bit in a positive way,” said Dr. Scherder, the Amsterdam neuropsychologist. “Leaving them in the chair, passive, make the disease progress much faster.”
On a recent visit to the Vreugdehof care center in Amsterdam, one resident, Anna Leeman-Koning, 90, played with a therapy robotic seal. It helps brings old emotions to the fore, momentarily sweeping away disorientation caused by the resident’s irreversible, progressive loss of faculties.
But the seal began shaking its robotic tail too much, upsetting Ms. Leeman-Koning.
“Please calm down, please calm down,” she said. “What can I do to calm you down?”
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
You do not have to improve to qualify!
3-Day Inpatient Hospital Stay
1. You must have a qualifying three-day inpatient (as opposed to outpatient) hospital stay. Medicare Advantage plans might not have this requirement.
2. Generally, a transfer to a skilled nursing facility must be made within 30 days of leaving the hospital.
1. Your care at the skilled nursing facility must have been ordered by a physician and must relate to a condition for which you received inpatient hospital services or that arose at the skilled nursing facility while being treated for a condition for which you received inpatient hospital services.
2. As a practical matter, the care must only be available on an inpatient basis.
Daily Skilled Care
1. You must require and receive skilled nursing seven days a week, skilled therapy five days a week, or a combination of both skilled nursing and therapy services seven days a week.
2. Skilled care means that services must be provided by, or under the supervision of, a skilled professional in order to be safe and effective.
No Improvement Standard
1. Medicare coverage “does not turn on the presence or absence of a beneficiary’s potential for improvement, but rather on the beneficiary’s need for skilled care. Skilled care may be necessary to improve a patient’s condition, to maintain a patient’s current condition, or to prevent or slow further deterioration of the patient’s condition.” CMS Transmittal 179, Pub 100-02, 1/14/2014; Medicare Benefit Policy Manual, Chapter 8, Sections 30.2, 30.3.
100-Day Benefit Period
1. Your maximum benefit period is 100 days. It is possible to have more than one benefit period during the calendar year.
2. You are entitled to notice and to file an appeal when your Medicare-covered skilled nursing facility care is terminated before the end of your benefit period.
For additional information, see the Center for Medicare Advocacy’s Improvement Standard Homepage.
Sunday, July 15, 2018
Republished from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/health/breathing-tubes-intubation-older-patients.html
One-third of patients over age 65 die in the hospital after they are put on ventilators. Doctors are beginning to wonder if the procedure should be used so often.
By Paula Span
June 22, 2018
June 22, 2018
Earlier this year, an ambulance brought a man in his 80s to the emergency room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He had metastatic lung cancer; his family had arranged for hospice care at home.
But when he grew less alert and began struggling to breathe, his son tearfully called 911.
“As soon as I met them, his son said, ‘Put him on a breathing machine,’” recalled Dr. Kei Ouchi, an emergency physician and researcher at the hospital.
Hospice patients know that they’re close to death; they and their families have also been instructed that most distressing symptoms, like shortness of breath, can be eased at home.
But the son kept insisting, “Why can’t you put him on a breathing machine?”
Dr. Ouchi, lead author of a new study of how older people fare after emergency room intubation, knew this would be no simple decision.
“I went into emergency medicine thinking I’d be saving lives. I used to be very satisfied putting patients on a ventilator,” he told me in an interview.
But he began to realize that while intubation is indeed lifesaving, most older patients came to the E.R. with serious illnesses. “They sometimes have values and preferences beyond just prolonging their lives,” he said.
Often, he’d see the same people he’d intubated days later, still in the hospital, very ill, even unresponsive. “Many times, a daughter would say, ‘She would never have wanted this.’”
Like all emergency doctors, he’d been trained to perform the procedure — sedating the patient, putting a plastic tube down his throat and then attaching him to a ventilator that would breathe for him.
But, he said, “I was never trained to talk to patients or their families about what this means.”
His study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, reveals more about that.
Analyzing 35,000 intubations of adults over age 65, data gathered from 262 hospitals between 2008 and 2015, Dr. Ouchi and his colleagues found that a third of those patients die in the hospital despite intubation (also called “mechanical ventilation”).
Of potentially greater importance to elderly patients — who so often declare they’d rather die than spend their lives in nursing homes — are the discharge statistics.
Only a quarter of intubated patients go home from the hospital. Most survivors, 63 percent, go elsewhere, presumably to nursing facilities. The study doesn’t address whether they face short rehab stays or become permanent residents.
But it does document the crucial role that age plays.
After intubation, 31 percent of patients ages 65 to 74 survive the hospitalization and return home. But for 80- to 84-year-olds, that figure drops to 19 percent; for those over age 90, it slides to 14 percent.
At the same time, the mortality rate climbs sharply, to 50 percent in the eldest cohort from 29 percent in the youngest.
All intubated patients proceed to intensive care, most remaining sedated because intubation is uncomfortable. If they were conscious, patients might try to pull out the tubes or the I.V.’s delivering nutrition and medications. They cannot speak.
Intubation “is not a walk in the park,” Dr. Ouchi said. “This is a significant event for older adults. It can really change your life, if you survive.”
A study at Yale University in 2015 following older adults before and after an I.C.U. stay (average age: 83) confirmed what many geriatricians already understood. Depending on how disabled patients are before a critical illness, they’re likely to see a decline in their function afterward, or to die within a year.
Those who underwent intubation had more than twice the mortality risk of other I.C.U. patients. “You don’t get better, most of the time,” said Dr. Ouchi. While outcomes remain hard to predict, “a lot of times, you get worse.”
Intubation rates are projected to increase. But so has the use of alternatives known as “noninvasive ventilation” — primarily the bipap device, short for bi-level positive airway pressure.
A tightfitting mask over the nose and mouth helps patients with certain conditions breathe nearly as well as intubation does. But they remain conscious and can have the mask removed briefly for a sip of water or a short conversation.
When researchers at the Mayo Clinic undertook an analysis of the technique, reviewing 27 studies of noninvasive ventilation in patients with do-not-intubate or comfort-care-only orders, they found that most survived to discharge. Many, treated on ordinary hospital floors, avoided intensive care.
“There are cases where noninvasive ventilation is comparable or even superior to mechanical ventilation,” said Dr. Douglas White, a critical care physician and ethicist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Dr. Ouchi, for instance, explained to his patient’s distraught son that intubation would thwart his father’s desire to remain communicative. The patient, able to see though not to say much, died four days later in a hospital room with bipap and morphine to reduce his “air hunger.”
Most patients in the Mayo review died within a year, too. But bipap may provide an interim option, giving families and physicians time to decide together whether to intubate an ailing older patient, who at this point probably can’t direct his own care.
The harried emergency room environment, after all, hardly encourages thoughtful discussions about patients’ prognoses and wishes. Those can become fraught conversations anyway, as Dr. White’s previous research has demonstrated.
His 2016 study showed that when physicians and surrogate decision makers have very different expectations about a critically ill patient’s odds of recovery, it’s not merely because family members fail to grasp what the physician explained.
“Other things get in the way of making good decisions,” Dr. White pointed out. “A lot of this has to do with psychological and emotional factors” — like “optimism bias” (Most people with this condition will die, but not my mom) or “performative optimism” (If we maintain hope, our mom will get better).
In their most recent study, he and his colleagues experimented with a support program for families with relatives in I.C.U.s., nearly all intubated.
When a specially-trained nurse checked in daily to explain developments and answer questions, families rated their communications more highly and felt more satisfied with their loved ones’ care.
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s health system has begun adopting the program in its 40 I.C.U.s.
But discussing how aggressively an older person wants to be treated remains a conversation — probably a series of them — best held before a crisis.
Intubation, for instance, is often something a physician can foresee. Older patients who have cardio-respiratory conditions (emphysema, lung cancer, heart failure), or who are prone to pneumonia, or who have entered the later stages of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease — any of them may be nearing this crossroads.
When they do, Dr. Michael Wilson, a critical care physician at the Mayo Clinic, opts for a particularly humane approach.
As he recently described in JAMA Internal Medicine, before he inserts the tube, he explains to the patient and family that while he and the staff will do everything they can, people in this circumstance may die.
“You may later wake up and do fine,” he tells his patient. “Or this may be the last time to communicate with your family,” because intubated patients can’t talk.
Since setting up intubation generally takes a few minutes, he encourages people to spend them sharing words of comfort, reassurance and affection. Without that pause, “I have stolen the last words from patients,” he told me.
His editorial has drawn attention from critical care physicians around the world.
Dr. Wilson has used this approach about 50 times in his I.C.U., so he has learned what patients and families, given this opportunity, tell one another.
“It’s nearly always, ‘I love you,’” he said. “‘I hope you do well.’”
Sunday, July 1, 2018
Having a conversation about moving — whether it’s with a relative, even a spouse — brings up lots of anxiety. Here’s how to go about it.
By Peter Finch
April 27, 2018
April 27, 2018
Dawn and John Strumsky agree about most things, a tendency that has served them well in 45 years of marriage. But there was one subject where they did not see eye to eye for the longest time: their retirement future.
Ms. Strumsky wanted desperately to move into a retirement community, to live as “a princess” unburdened by the cooking, cleaning or yardwork required at their Maryland home. Mr. Strumsky didn’t just resist the idea, he detested it. During one argument with his wife, he shouted, “By God, I’ll sit in the burned-out, firebombed ruins of this home before anybody pulls me out!”
Mr. Strumsky, 78, tells that story with a laugh. Because, as he puts it, “I’ve done a 180 on this.” He finally gave in to his wife’s wishes, and in 2011 they moved to Charlestown, a retirement community outside Baltimore. Today, it might have no bigger fan than John Strumsky. One measure of his devotion: He’s the author of an exhaustive, 364-page history of Charlestown that management hands out to prospective residents.
His reluctance to move into a retirement community was not unusual. People often vow they’ll never do it, for any number of reasons. They fear giving up their independence. They can’t bear leaving their home. They don’t like confronting their own mortality. This can lead to bitter squabbles with members of their family and other loved ones who want them to move.
“I’ve heard more than one adult child say, half-jokingly, ‘If Mom doesn’t check in to a retirement home, I’m going to need to,’” said Katherine Pearson, a specialist in elder law and a professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson Law School.
So how do you persuade an unwilling senior to at least consider it? The key is to be patient, said Tom Neubauer, executive vice president at Erickson Living, which operates 19 retirement communities. “Inherently there’s a sense of denial, particularly as it relates to aging, and you’re trying to defeat that.”
He likened the process to helping a high school student choose a college: “You can’t just hand them a brochure and say, ‘This is where you’re going.’ It’s a journey.”
Mr. Neubauer’s mother, Betty, moved into a retirement home three years ago. He had started encouraging her about three years before that. The discussion, he said, was less about “You need to do this” and more about “How do we maximize your years in retirement?”
He focused on “really getting her to reflect on her life as she knew it,” he said. “I got her to recognize that the stairs in her house were pretty steep, that the weather had more of an impact on her ability to get out and do things, that she wasn’t pursuing all her hobbies as much anymore because people weren’t driving at night. It ended up being very easy.”
It’s best to start the retirement-home conversation with broad, open-ended questions, said Brad Breeding, founder of myLifeSite.net, a website that helps consumers research retirement communities. “What does peace of mind mean to you in this stage of your life?” he suggested. “What kinds of concerns do you have for your future?”
Let’s say a senior’s No. 1 goal is staying in her home. “O.K., in the next conversation I’ll start to talk about ‘What would we do if you had a fall in your home?’ Or ‘What would happen if you had a stroke?’” Mr. Breeding said.
One way to make retirement communities more attractive is to frame the move as a gift to their children. “It’s really removing the responsibility of caring for the parents, of not having to make frantic, last-minute arrangements if something changes in their health,” said Lesley Sargent, a residency counselor at the Sagewood retirement community in Phoenix.
Part of the problem is that many people hear “retirement community” and think “nursing home.” Today’s typical continuing care retirement community, or C.C.R.C., is a far cry from the sterile nursing-home environment of previous generations. While the communities usually have some hospital-like rooms for people who need more advanced care, most of their residences look and feel like ordinary apartments.
The best way around that objection is to let someone see firsthand. “You can always go for a meal just to experience what it’s like,” said Lindsay Hutter, chief strategy and marketing officer at Goodwin House, a senior living and care organization in Virginia.
The ideal approach: Create a social occasion where the senior you’re trying to convince can dine with friends, or friends of friends. With seniors, Ms. Hutter said, “our observation is that peers have a much greater influence than their children do.”
Some retirement communities let potential residents spend a few nights to see how they like it. Others offer rental programs that let seniors stay longer. Like a lot of C.C.R.C.s, Goodwin House will let nonresidents join a waiting list — known as its “priority club” — that allows them to use its restaurants and participate in activities. If they decide the community is not for them, the $1,000 waiting list fee is refundable.
Another common objection is the price. Indeed, C.C.R.C.s are expensive, with entrance fees generally equaling about what people would pay for a home in the local market. Sometimes these fees are partly or fully refundable if the resident decides to move out, though often they are not. On top of that, there is a monthly maintenance payment.
When Mickie Zatulove started urging her husband, Paul, to consider retirement communities a few years ago, he argued that they were “way overpriced.” He was “totally wrong about that,” Mr. Zatulove acknowledged recently from their apartment at Sagewood.
What Mr. Zatulove, an 86-year-old former investment adviser, failed to take into account: “Half the cost is the physical plant they provide,” he said. “The dining rooms, swimming pools, classrooms, fitness centers, beauty shops, spas, clinics, all within walking distance, with no stairs. And this is very important. Your purpose as you age is to keep your quality of life and participate in activities with companions in a safe environment.”
Remember, too, that maintaining a single-family house isn’t exactly cheap. Expenses like routine upkeep, security and yardwork will disappear once you move into a retirement community, said Frederick Herb, a Seattle retiree and author of the book “Holistic Living in Life Plan Communities.”
Still, the thought of leaving the family home is the biggest stumbling block for many retirees. This is partly because they have grown accustomed to their house and also because they are rattled by the thought of moving into someplace smaller.
A specialist in senior moving might be the answer to that problem. A cottage industry of these consultants has sprung up in recent years, and today the National Association of Senior Move Managers has more than 1,000 members. They don’t just move boxes. They’ll create digital floor plans to show clients how everything will look and fit in a smaller home. They’ll ship leftover items to relatives or to auctions. They’ll even come into the new home and hang photos just the way they were before.
“Our goal is to re-create their old space,” said Joel Danick, co-owner with his wife, Susie, of TAD Relocation in Maryland. “The more familiar we can make the new space, the quicker they’ll make the transition and get comfortable.”
What’s the secret to finding that comfort zone? People living in retirement communities agree that the best approach is to get out of your room, meet your new neighbors and allow yourself to enjoy their company.
For the once-skeptical Mr. Strumsky, it took only days for him to start feeling certain that he and his wife, who is 72, had made the right decision. About a week after moving in at Charlestown, he went out to walk the dog at night and ran into a pair of women he didn’t know who were chatting amiably in the parking lot. About 25 minutes later, he returned home and saw the same women, still talking.
“They were so unconcerned about their personal safety, they were oblivious to anything going on around them,” Mr. Strumsky said. “And it just hit me: I really wished my mother or my sister or my aunt could have had this experience, to feel that safe and secure. At that point, it was like a light bulb going on. It was an instant turnaround for me.”
Friday, June 15, 2018
By Lisa Mosconi
Dr. Mosconi is a neuroscientist.
April 18, 2018
Dr. Mosconi is a neuroscientist.
April 18, 2018
In the next three minutes, three people will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Two of them will be women.
There are 5.7 million Alzheimer’s patients in the United States. By 2050, there will probably be as many as 14 million, and twice as many women as men will have the disease.
And yet research into “women’s health” remains largely focused on reproductive fitness and breast cancer. We need to be paying much more attention to the most important aspect of any woman’s future: her ability to think, to recall, to imagine — her brain.
When I first started in the field, Alzheimer’s was thought of as the inevitable consequence of bad genes, aging or both. Today we understand that Alzheimer’s has compound causes, such as age, genetics, high blood pressure and aspects of lifestyle, including diet and exercise. There is also scientific consensus that Alzheimer’s is not always a disease of old age but can start in the brain when people are in their 40s and 50s.
What we are only beginning to understand is why women are more susceptible. What factors differentiate women from men, specifically as we reach middle age?
The first and most obvious thing is fertility. Women are diverse, but we all experience the decline in fertility and the beginning of menopause.
It turns out that menopause affects far more than our childbearing potential. Symptoms like night sweats, hot flashes and depression originate not in the ovaries but largely in the brain. These symptoms are all caused by an ebb in estrogen. The latest research, including my own work, indicates that estrogen serves to protect the female brain from aging. It stimulates neural activity and may help prevent the build up of plaques that are connected to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. When estrogen levels decline, the female brain becomes much more vulnerable.
To determine this, my colleagues and I used a brain imaging technique called PET on a group of healthy middle-aged women. This allowed us to measure neural activity and the presence of Alzheimer’s plaques. The tests revealed that the women who were postmenopausal had less brain activity and more Alzheimer’s plaques than premenopausal women. More surprising, this was also the case for perimenopausal women — those who were just starting to experience symptoms of menopause. And both groups’ brains showed even more drastic differences when compared with those of healthy men of the same age.
The good news is that as women mature into their 40s and 50s, there seems to be a window of opportunity when it is possible to detect early signs of higher Alzheimer’s risk — by doing a brain-imaging test, as we did — and to take action to reduce that risk.
There is increasing evidence that hormone replacement therapies — mainly, giving women supplemental estrogen — can help to alleviate symptoms if given before menopause. We need much more research to test the efficacy and safety of hormone therapy, which has been tied to an increased risk of heart disease, blood clots and breast cancer in some cases.
Perhaps in the next decade it will become the norm for middle-aged women to receive preventive testing and treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, just as they get mammograms today. In the meantime, research shows that diet can alleviate and mitigate the effects of menopause in women which could minimize the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Many foods naturally boost estrogen production, including soy, flax seeds, chickpeas, garlic and fruit like apricots. Women in particular also need antioxidant nutrients like vitamin C and vitamin E, found in berries, citrus fruits, almonds, raw cacao, Brazil nuts and many leafy green vegetables.
These are first steps, for women and for doctors. But the more we learn about what kicks off and accelerates dementia, the clearer it becomes that we need to take better care of women’s brains. A comprehensive evaluation of women’s health demands thorough investigations of the aging brain, the function of estrogen in protecting it and strategies to prevent Alzheimer’s in women specifically.
No one needs to be reminded that many things make a woman unique. We are working to help make sure that the risk of Alzheimer’s is not one of them.
Lisa Mosconi is the associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College and the author of “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.”