The diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s is a fundamental women’s rights issue, said panelists at a March 8 South by Southwest Conference event in Austin, Texas on International Women’s Day.
The panelists included Indian American neuroscientist Farida Sohrabji, director of the women's health in neuroscience program at Texas A&M University’s College of Medicine; Maria Shriver, founder of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement; and Broadway star Alexandra Socha. Journalist Ashley Ford of Buzzfeed News moderated the lively discussion.
Alzheimer’s disproportionately affects women; two-thirds of people suffering from the ailment are females. Caring for a family member stricken with Alzheimer’s tends to fall primarily on women’s shoulders, noted the speakers.
More than 5.8 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In India, more than four million people live with some form of dementia, according to the organization.
“The stigma of Alzheimer’s has created a bigger problem than what would have otherwise been a more careful, societal way of addressing the disease,” said Sohrabji. She noted that as women lose their ability to recognize family members or the functionality of familiar objects, they become embarrassed because of the stigma associated with dementia, and retreat into themselves, often also becoming depressed.
“Depression should be taken very seriously. It should be brought up with your doctor at any age, and it should be considered as an illness by itself or a precursor to Alzheimer’s,” asserted Sohrabji.
In an interview with India-West following the panel discussion, Sohrabji said that there are very interesting cultural differences in the diagnosis and care and treatment of Alzheimer’s and dementia in India compared to the U.S. The joint family structure allows elderly ailing members to go undiagnosed without much concern.
“Quirks are seen with much more indulgence,” she said.
The joint family structure, with its daily social engagements, is a key factor in managing dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, explained Sohrabji, noting that simply eating regularly with family and friends can promote healthy aging. She lauded Indian American community organizations such as the India Community Center in Milpitas, Calif., which brings together seniors on an almost-daily basis for lunch, discussions and activities.
Paranoia, along with depression, is also a precursor to dementia, said Sohrabji, noting that family members will start to say alarming things, such as: “People aren’t on my side. They’re all out to get me.”
“Since there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease right now, a lot of our focus is on lifestyle changes that can stave of the onset of Alzheimer’s such as a diet low in fat and sugar, as well as regular exercise,” said Sohrabji, noting that exercise improves blood flow, and builds proteins that protect brain cells.
Shriver said onstage at SXSW that she was proud to join the panelists in the discussion on International Women’s Day. “Our minds and our voices are our biggest assets. Alzheimer’s is robbing women of both,” she said, adding that women must be strong advocates for both their mental and physical health.
Women don’t get the health assessments they need, said Shriver, stating that their concerns lie more with the health of their families rather than their own well-being. “Don’t put your own health on the back burner,” she urged, adding that doctors also need to be educated.
“Alzheimer’s is 20 years in the making. What you do now affects your brain health in the future,” said Shriver.
Socha, whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 50 and died from the disease two years ago at age 66, said Alzheimer’s is a “full family disease,” with caregivers, primarily women, halting their own lives to give their ailing loved ones’ full time care.
The entire discussion can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/2JZZpi3.