Though Alzheimer's affects far more women than men – fully 72 per cent of patients are female – the medical community continues to treat it as though it's an equal-opportunity disease. The Women's Brain Health Initiative is striving for a radical change in approach, much like what occurred when researchers realized that heart and stroke are very different in men and women.
For the past five years, Toronto philanthropist Lynn Posluns, founder and president of the initiative, has worked tirelessly to encourage the medical community to look at the disease differently. Her charitable foundation – which officially launched in 2013 and has raised about $1.5-million – wants more research dollars focused specifically on the male-female anomaly, particularly as the number of Canadians with the disease is expected to rise to a million within the next few decades.
Posluns talked with The Globe about the need for a new approach.
It is established that women are more susceptible to Alzheimer's disease. Is that due to genetics or is it that women are traditionally the primary caregivers for others so they aren't taking care of themselves and therefore have suboptimal brain health?
We live longer and age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, but that's only one area that's currently being explored. We also are 2 1/2 times more likely to suffer from depression than men. The fact that we are usually the caregivers looking after family members in distress could be a factor because we don't devote enough time to taking care of our own health.
Research shows only 5 per cent of people with Alzheimer's are genetically predisposed to have the disease, and most people don't realize that. They think if I'm destined to get it, there's not much I can do about it. But more research is coming out that says that's not the case.
What was the primary reason you founded the Women's Brain Health Initiative?
I wanted our organization to push for more research to be focused on women's brains because traditionally the scientific focus has leaned toward men. A lot of research, including on the neurodegenerative diseases, is done on male lab rats because the pesky hormones in female rats make them harder to decipher. But you just can't discount half the population because it's more expensive to study females than males. More research is finding that there are major differences – in much the same way they recognized 20 years ago that a man's heart attack is different than a woman's.
With Alzheimer's and dementia, there seems to be something going on, beyond age, that makes women more susceptible because the likelihood they succumb is higher. So what are the reasons for that? Is it hormones? Is it the fact that women past menopause no longer produce estrogen, which is known to have a protective factor for the brain? (Men continue to produce estrogen, so is that why they have greater protection?)
Research shows about 60 per cent of Alzheimer's cases could be prevented if people exercised regularly, pursued a healthy diet and cut back on neurotoxic alcohol and smoking. Are there other lifestyle interventions that could slow the progression of the disease?
Mental stimulation is also key. You have to exercise your brain like it's a muscle, and it doesn't have to be complex. Yes, you can learn to play bridge or pick up another language. But even simple things like, if you're right-handed, brushing your teeth with your left hand, or driving a different route to work, will help develop new neural pathways to keep the brain as robust as possible.
Social stimulation – being actively engaged in your community – helps prevent depression and isolation, both precursors to dementia. Sleep is also important to get rid of toxins in the brain. And stress management – doing things like yoga, meditation – is especially important for women.
Women, and men, with Alzheimer's often feel marginalized because there is so much stigma attached to the disease. Do you think the film Still Alice will help dispel some of that stigma?
Still Alice … shows Alzheimer's is not something that should be put in a corner and not thought about. It's almost like what Tom Hanks did for AIDS with the movie Philadelphia. Perhaps Julianne Moore, because of all the attention she's getting with awards for her performance in Still Alice [Oscar nomination, Golden Globe and Critic's Choice awards] will have the same positive impact to get people talking.
This interview has been edited and condensed.