As patients, women are at higher risk of several brain diseases.
Two thirds of Alzheimer’s patients worldwide are women. Once diagnosed, female patients experience poorer cognition and faster progression of symptoms compared to men (Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, Alzheimer’s & Dementia 2016; Ferretti et al., submitted).
Depression and Anxiety Disorders
Women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders compared to men, with these disorders presenting more persistently in women (World Health Organization, 2016).
Women have a higher lifetime risk of stroke than men. Female stroke patients manifest greater physical and cognitive impairment, more limitations in day-to-day activities and a higher risk of depression following a stroke. About 60% of stroke deaths occur in women (Executive summary: heart disease and stroke statistics-2014 update: a report from the American Heart Association, Go et al., Circulation 2014).
Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis
A disease occurring when antibodies produced by the body’s own immune system attack NMDA receptors in the brain, 80% of the patients being women.
A chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system, has a prevalence ratio of two women for each men (World Health Organization, 2008).
Meningiomas (Brain Tumors)
Occur twice as much in women than in men, with a prevalence ratio of two women patients for each man (Wiemels at al., 2010 Journal of Neurooncology)
As caregivers, women are more negatively affected by caregiving than men.
Of the 43.5 million unpaid caregivers in the US alone about 65% are women (The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, 2015).
About a third reduce their working hours or are compelled to give up their job(Alzheimer’s Research UK report, A Marginalized Majority, 2015). This leads to various consequences including a higher risk of financial difficulties in old age and other effects related to low socio-economic status, e.g. poorer health care. Caregivers, in particular female caregivers, do not solely suffer financial loss due to the care recipient’s as well as their reduced income, but are also at a financial disadvantage in old age due to lower pension benefits.
“Due to an unequal distribution of opportunities and socialization of gender roles, there can be gender differences in all the burden-related conditions, that is, primary stressors, hours of caregiving, help from others and secondary stressors. Primary stressors are expected to be stronger for female than male caregivers. As women are often younger than their husbands and age is an important predictor of the level of impairment, women are more likely to have a partner with more of a care need than men. Women are also expected to devote more time to partner care than men.” (Swinkels et al., 2017, p.2)
Caregiver responsibilities take an enormous toll on the carers physical as well as mental health. Informal caregivers also experience involving mental and emotional stress related to their role as caregiver. This stress increases risk for various mental health disorders and stress-related diseases. Compared to men, it has been observed that female caregivers experience greater stress and stress-related disorders including anxiety and depression as well as physical ailments(Edwards et al., 2016). In particular, research shows that women caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s disease experience worse caregiving-related stress than men (Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, Alzheimer’s & Dementia 2016).
While promoting mental health has been identified as a key goal health development by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2015, this will only be achieved with a thorough understanding of the roles of sex and gender in mental illness.
Read the opening remarks by Tania Dussey-Cavassini, Vice-Director General of the Federal Office of Public Health, Ambassador for Global Health at the Women’s Brain Project Launch on 07 April 2017 in St.Gallen Switzerland. Click here to view the speech.