Pressure on women to leave workforce could lead to Alzheimer’s

Dr Sabrina Brennan says women with less ‘cognitive reserve’ more succeptible

Women may be at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s as a result of being pushed out of the workforce, according to a leading Irish dementia researcher.

The marriage bar, along with historical pressure on women to leave work and rear children at home, has made them less able to resist the impact of Alzheimer's, says Dr Sabina Brennan of Trinity College Dublin.

The marriage bar forced women to resign from public service jobs as soon as they were married. It operated in Ireland from the 1930s until it was lifted in 1973.

Dr Brennan says women have been found to have less “cognitive reserve” to help them resist Alzheimer’s and this may be because many were denied the stimulation often provided by the work environment. In contrast, men were more likely to have the benefit of stimulation at work.


Women account for 30,000 of the 47,000 people with the disease in Ireland. This is partly because the risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age and women live longer than men, she points out. She was commenting on research that shows women with Alzheimer’s have poorer cognitive abilities than men at the same stage of the disease.


A review of evidence by researchers in the University of Hertfordshire found women’s cognitive functions are more severely and widely impaired, with men consistently outperforming women, even in areas where younger women have a natural advantage such as in verbal and language skills.

These differences do not appear to be attributable to any differences in age, education or severity of the disease, according to the research published in the World Journal of Psychia. Alzheimer's is the most common neurodegenerative disease associated with ageing. There are about 30 million people with dementia worldwide, 4.6 million new cases annually, and one new case every seven seconds.

It results in progressive degeneration and death of nerve cells, causing a decline in cognition and memory functions. Many patients are left unable to perform simple, everyday tasks. Women are significantly more at risk of developing Alzheimer’s than men and this discrepancy increases with age.

The theory about cognitive reserve is one of a number of possible causes being investigated.

Some researchers believe the gender difference arises because of a reduction of estrogen in postmenopausal women – the menopause diminishes cognitive functions such as memory, which is subsequently compounded by Alzheimer’s.

Another theory relates to a specific gene which has been linked to Alzheimer’s. Women are more likely to be carriers of this gene, which is linked to cognitive decline and memory problems even in healthy individuals.


“If you join the dots between the studies you get this link between women and a greater disposition to Alzheimer’s,” says Dr Brennan, who is co-director of a dementia research programme in TCD and a candidate in the Seanad election.

Women are not only more likely to get Alzheimer’s but they are also more likely to be carers of people with dementia, she says. Up to 70 per cent of unpaid care is provided by women.

The Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland has called for greater awareness of how women are doubly affected by the condition.

Former president Mary Robinson is to launch a charter of rights for people with dementia today.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times