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The Women Tackling America’s Aging Health Epidemic

Sherri Snelling July 22, 2019
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Hollywood harnessed the power of women by giving us a female Captain Marvel, WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s is harnessing the power of everyday female superheroes to determine the outcome of their own health stories.

Women have brought their societal power to change the disease trajectories of breast cancer and heart health. They are now poised to take on Alzheimer’s through an innovative approach that changes the conversation about Alzheimer’s disease and widens the tent of those who should care and be involved.

Women on Top of the Next Big Health Revolution

Alzheimer’s disease may be the biggest health crisis Americans face over the next thirty years. Today, Alzheimer’s affects 5.7 million people with another 16 million family members caring for them. By 2050, when millennials are in their 50s and 60s, Gen Xers are in their late 60s and early 80s and remaining baby boomers will be centenarians or in their mid 80s-90s, the number of those with the disease will climb to 14 million.

In addition, women are disproportionately impacted by Alzheimer’s. Females represent two-thirds of those diagnosed with the disease and 63% of dementia caregivers are women. What’s more, research presented at the 2019 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference found sex-specific differences in the development of Alzheimer’s—including easier spread of abnormal tau protein (a toxic substance in the brain which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s) for women and a faster rate of memory decline among women who were never employed compared to women who were part of the paid labor force.

In the face of the growing body of research around women and Alzheimer’s, WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s (WA2) decided the conversation about Alzheimer’s needed to be disrupted. The result is “Be Brain Powerful: The Campaign for Women’s Brain Health,” just one of the initiatives in a multi-pronged, multi-year effort by WA2’s umbrella network, UsAgainstAlzheimer’s in its Brain Health Partnership effort. The focus of the campaign aggregates the power of women by engaging them in the battle against the Alzheimer’s epidemic through positive lifestyle changes, which many scientific studies point to as the pathway to prevention or lowered risk.  

“Historically, women have driven consumer change, especially when it comes to health, whether that is breast cancer awareness and prevention or improving heart health,” said Brooks Kenny, executive director of WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s. “Women are nurturers and warriors and as the chief medical officers of their families, we envision women not just shifting the conversation about Alzheimer’s but creating the change needed to effectively fight this disease.”

Not Alzheimer’s But Brain Health

The campaign’s unique approach is grounded in core messaging where the main theme and tagline do not include the word Alzheimer’s. Instead WA2 translated Alzheimer’s into the larger context of brain health. This strategy met two goals: inspire women with positive messaging and make the issue not just about disease but about an area of health long overlooked: our brains.

“This campaign is smart on so many levels,” said Susan Spencer, editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day, a member of the WA2 Leadership Counciland a media partner in the campaign. “Not only does it reframe Alzheimer’s to give it broader appeal as a brain health issue, it engages a multigenerational audience in a positive aging movement.”

Spencer, whose magazine has a long history of involvement in women’s health initiatives, embraced the campaign’s strategy because the classic Sandwich Generation woman is caring for younger and older generations while also balancing self-care where brain health is an issue across the lifespan.

Turning Awareness Into Action

Many nonprofit organizations fail at their mission because they create only awareness that does not translate into action. In the 1980s an evolution in communication strategy took place where previously organizations had shortsightedly believed education or knowledge alone (a communication theory in science known as the Information Deficit Model), would be enough to create change. However, numerous scientific studies over the last 35 years show people who are simply given more information on a topic rarely change their beliefs or behaviors.

WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s realized awareness is necessary, but the real goal of the campaign is action. Therefore, one of the key elements of the “Be Brain Powerful” campaign called on more than 30 campaign advocacy partners to engage their female audiences to join the 30-Day Challenge. This call to action asked women to adopt healthier lifestyle behaviors based on the Cleveland Clinic’s guidelines for better brain health. In addition, the campaign encourages women to change the conversation with their doctors by asking for “a check-up from the neck up.”

This effort, as well as other strategies of the campaign was the result of commissioned research by WA2 in partnership with HealthyWomen. They queried more than 1,000 women between ages 35-64 on what women want to know about better brain health.  Nine in 10 women felt brain health was as important as maintaining other parts of their body. Eighty percent felt brain health needs more dialogue and attention but only 10% are talking about it and 70 percent want more information about measuring and tracking brain health.

Lorna Sabbia, head of Retirement & Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America and a member of the WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s Leadership Council said, “The issue of women’s health, especially cognitive health, is critically important. When we come together and lend our voices to an issue, it creates a multiplying effect that propels change.”

The launch of the campaign was supported by female thought leaders in policy, media, entertainment, leading NGOs in women’s health and aging and corporate business leaders who joined the effort as part of the campaign’s “Brain Trust.” These VIPs include former First Lady Laura Bush; Sheinelle Jones, news anchor at NBC; celebrities including Kim Campbell, wife of the late Glen Campbell; actress Kimberly Williams Paisley; Lauren Miller Rogen, screenwriter and wife of Seth Rogen; as well as Washington power brokers such as former Health and Human Services Secretaries Kathleen Sebelius and Donna Shalala, political consultant Mary Matalin, human rights activist Kerry Kennedy and AARP’s Jo Ann Jenkins.

To date, the “Be Brain Powerful” campaign is delivering on its disruptive goals. Preliminary results show it has doubled the average nonprofit campaign open rate on social media messages and almost tripled the click rates normally seen in these types of campaigns. More importantly, participants are returning to the interesting lifestyle content and tools.

Taking On the Healthcare System, Employers and Washington

The grassroots effort is just the first phase of the initiative. Kenny advised that next phases involve engagement with health care professionals and those working in long-term care, as well as more support through the nation’s employers where women comprise half of the U.S. workforce.

Kenny said a strong policy and advocacy effort is also on the roadmap with the goal to change the minds of legislators about the real dangers of ignoring brain health. According to the latest facts and figures from the Alzheimer’s Association the national cost of Alzheimer’s disease is $290 billion—a number that will only grow exponentially if preventions, treatments and cures remain elusive.

“We have learned so much about our bodies and health and it took all sectors of society to create that revolution,” said Kenny. “Now it’s time to include brain health in the health conversation—it’s a bold next step whose time has come.”

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Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist and expert on aging and caregiving. She has been a longtime Alzheimer’s awareness advocate and has also created and worked on award-winning social awareness campaigns including the Nintendo-Starlight Foundation Fun Center program at children’s hospitals, the first campus rape education campaign with the National Rape Treatment Center and the “Picture Them Home” campaign with Canon and the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children for which she was awarded the Corporate Partner Award by NCMEC and the U.S. Department of Justice.

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