PSTC Researcher Investigates Social Determinants of Gender Differences in Dementia

September 5, 2023

While nearly two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients in the United States are women, little social science research has been dedicated to understanding women’s increased lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and Alzheimer's disease-related dementias (AD/ADRD). However, as part of her ongoing research as an NIH K01 Research Scientist Development Awardee, PSTC Affiliate and Assistant Professor of Population Studies Meghan Zacher aims to help rectify this omission by analyzing how social determinants of health, such as education, may fuel this persistent gender disparity. 

“As a sociologist, my overarching research interest is in how social factors get under the skin and cause avoidable morbidity, mortality, and health inequity,” says Professor Zacher. “To fully understand sex/gender differences in dementia, we need rigorous social science on social-behavioral explanations to complement research on sex-related biology.” 

Specifically, Zacher aims to leverage data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative panel survey of older U.S. adults, to examine the role that education, a known social determinant of AD/ADRD, may play in women’s increased risk of developing these diseases. In addition to analyzing women’s historically unequal access to education, Zacher will also investigate how such gendered educational outcomes may consequently impact women’s career opportunities to inform their lifetime AD/ADRD risk. 

“Of the many threats to women’s health discussed in our review, concerns about aging are especially timely,” says Professor Zacher. While U.S. adults now generally live longer than previous generations, researchers still know little about how recent societal changes, such as women’s 20th century strides towards education and labor market equality, may impact disability and disease outcomes for this generation of women later in life. 

Zacher has investigated similar disparities in women’s health throughout her time as a researcher. Last year, Zacher and PSTC Director and Professor of Sociology Susan Short co-authored a paper in Annual Review of Sociology reporting that women in the United States overwhelmingly suffer worse health outcomes than women in other high income countries, citing disparities that include America’s high maternal mortality rate, particularly among women of color, women’s diminishing reproductive freedoms, and historical failures to adequately study women’s health.

“The state of women’s health in the U.S. is shocking — even to us, medical sociologists and demographers with a history of studying gender and health,” the researchers wrote in a recent op-ed for Knowable Magazine. “To make change, a shift towards equity — in and out of science — is needed.”