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Closing the gender gap: Why the female brain needs more attention
Women are twice as likely as men to become victims of aging brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. So, why is most of the research done using male brains?
That's what Lynn Posluns wondered while working as a fundraiser with the Baycrest Foundation, a health centre in Toronto that focuses on aging. She discovered to her surprise that most of the research for brain aging diseases still focuses on men’s brains.
Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia are scary to anyone, Posluns told CTV's Canada AM Monday. "But what was more scary was learning that 70 per cent of new Alzheimer’s sufferers would be women, that women suffer from stroke, depression and dementia twice as much as men but the research still focuses on men," she said.
What Posluns learned is that researchers studying brain diseases and behaviour changes tend to use male rats because the hormones in the female rats make then too complex.
"Because of the hormones affecting a woman’s cycle, twice as much money has to go into studying women than men, to level out the hormone problem," Posluns says. "But just because we’re more complex and it would cost more to study females more than males doesn’t mean you should discount half the population when you’re doing any kind of research."
Posluns says women's hormones appear to play a big role in their brain health and should be included in that kind of research. For example, she's learned that women who have a hysterectomy and a oophorectomy (in which both ovaries are removed) are at a much higher risk of dementia over the course of the rest of their lives. It’s important, she says, to find out why.
"People have to understand what the implications are when you take out a body part; it could in fact affect your brain health later," she says.
With no one focusing on women's brain health, Posluns launched the Women’s Brain Health Initiative to raise money to fund research into women’s brain aging disorders and to even out the gender research gap. She's hoping the initiative can help uncover why dementia affects more women than men, and why strokes and depression affect them more as well.
As well, she hopes the initiative will help to educate people – both women and men – that dementia is at least partly lifestyle-related and that there's a lot that people can do to stay brain healthy.
Posluns says there's an acronym that describes the pillars of maintaining brain health, and it's dubbed, ironically, MENS. It stands for:
Mental activity – research shows that it’s important to regularly exercise the brain with challenging tasks
Exercise – regular exercise helps with cell regeneration and blood flow to the brain
Nutrition - a low-fat Mediterranean style diet appears best for preventing brain disease, since what's good for your heart is good for your brain
Social life - do what you love with those who you love