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Brain health awareness growing, but action lacking

One thing’s for sure: We care about our brain health. According to the results a 2024 brain health survey conducted by Parade and the Cleveland Clinic, an impressive 69 percent of Americans think at least once a year about our risk of developing brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

But the survey of 1,003 adults 18 and older, released during June’s Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, also revealed that there is a gap between awareness and action — as well as misconceptions about common brain issues, what our risk of developing brain diseases such as dementia over time actually looks like, who is most at risk and more.

Not seeking help

The good news, as noted, is that most of us are thinking about our brain health on some level. The bad news? Many of us don’t go any further. The survey found that 36 percent of people under age 50 and about one-fourth of people over age 50 had noticed a brain health or memory issue but were too afraid to seek help.

While it’s unclear exactly what this fear is rooted in, and Alzheimer’s does not have a cure, steps can be taken to reduce risk or slow progress.

Women at greater risk

Two-thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s are women. But 48 percent of women surveyed believe both men and women are equally likely to get Alzheimer’s or dementia, and 28 percent said they had no idea if gender played a role. And unfortunately, only 15 percent of women talk to their doctors about ways to optimize their brain health.

Jessica Caldwell, director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, says that initially it was thought that women were more likely to get Alzheimer’s than men because women lived longer and the top risk factor for Alzheimer’s or dementia is aging.

But research has given us a more complete picture. “Now, we know that when it comes to genetics, the most common age-related Alzheimer’s disease genetic risk is having at least one APOE e4 gene — and women are four times more likely to have this genetic impact compared to men,” Caldwell says.

Physical inactivity and depression are also risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s, and more common among women than men.

“Finally, there are risk factors that only women go through, and one of those is menopause. Women lose estrogen, and unfortunately, estrogen is something that’s not just for reproducing — it’s for the entire brain and body,” Caldwell says. “It has so many different goals, and it directly supports memory.”

Women are more prone than men to other diseases that are also associated with increased Alzheimer’s risk, such as multiple sclerosis. Women are twice as likely than men to be affected by MS, and people with MS are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, according to Caldwell.

Race and ethnicity also influence risk, Caldwell says. Black women are twice as likely as white women to get Alzheimer’s, and Hispanic women are 1½ times more likely to get Alzheimer’s than white women.

Conversations help

In the survey, more than half of adults (56 percent) said that when celebrities and influencers share their experiences with Alzheimer’s and dementia, it inspires them to take action to protect their brain health.

“When I see celebrities being open, that’s a powerful way to open up a conversation that otherwise may not happen,” Caldwell agrees. “This can be a big part of helping more people in the nation have that conversation.”

But the topic is still somewhat taboo, Caldwell says. “If we can’t talk about Alzheimer’s with our doctors, we won’t be able to effectively reduce our risk or secure our lives so we don’t suffer consequences.”

Young people take heed

One inspiring finding from the survey? Young people care about their brain health. One in 10 respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 said they think daily about developing a brain health issue, more often than any other age group.

But they are prone to believe myths around Alzheimer’s. Almost half of those 18 to 34 believe that if someone in your family has the disease, you’re guaranteed to get it. Another 38 percent agree that you only have to worry about getting if a relative has it.

The truth, according to Caldwell, is more complicated than that.

“All of us have a risk of Alzheimer’s because it’s a disease of aging,” she says. “However, if you have a family history, your risk is 25 percent greater than someone without that family history. If you have multiple family members with it, your risk is more like 35-50 percent greater without a family history. If you have two copies of the APOE e4 gene, there are similar numbers there.”

And believe it or not, the most common type of Alzheimer’s disease, called sporadic Alzheimer’s disease, is one that has no known genetic risk.

“To the extent that we live long lives, we’re at risk for changes in the brain that can cause dementia,” Caldwell says.

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