Published on: March 8, 2017
by Lynn Posluns, Founder and President of Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
On International Women’s Day, we rightly celebrate the achievements of brilliant scientists and selfless humanitarians, of inspiring artists, world-beating athletes and visionary entrepreneurs. As we cheer those success stories, this day is also about sober reflection on where inequality persists and about a commitment to do better.
Sadly, the list of injustices remains long: not enough women in boardrooms or in political leadership, too many still subject to abuse.
There is also the number 70.
70 per cent of Alzheimer’s patients in Canada are women. Take a moment to let that mind-boggling statistic sink in.
We already know that dementia in all its forms is a looming challenge, the world’s next health threat to be conquered. More than half a million Canadians suffered from it in 2016, a number that is expected to grow by a stunning 66 per cent by 2031. Dementia is an emerging public health crisis, one that will disproportionately affect women, as sufferers and as caregivers.
But even though women are most at risk, the bulk of scientific research on dementia still focuses on men.
I only learned about these realities about five years ago when I was assisting the Baycrest Foundation with a fundraising campaign. Baycrest’s dedicated staff members were dealing with the human cost of dementia every day.
When the disparity was pointed out to me, I was gobsmacked. Why were people not screaming about this obvious inequity? Half of humanity faced a greater likelihood of a debilitating, dispiriting and incurable disease, but were being short changed in the investigations. The concept of “women’s brain health” was simply not seen as an issue.
I was determined to make it an issue. That is when Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI) was born—a national charity dedicated to supporting education and research.
In the early days of WBHI, it was frankly a challenge to attract corporate support. I would often hear the question “what’s brain health”?
But we are coming around. In fact, Canada is becoming a leader.
In December, Dr. Gillian Einstein of the University of Toronto was appointed to the world’s first research chair dedicated to exploring why women are more prone than men to brain disorders.
Full and proud disclosure: the initiative is funded in part by my family’s foundation, along with the Ontario Brain Institute, the Alzheimer Society of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and WBHI.
The Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA), which funds important research into dementia, recognizes the need for better understanding of why women and men are affected at different rates. WBHI is supporting a program, overseen by Dr. Mary Tierney of Sunnybrook that will ensure that researchers properly explore sex and gender differences.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but we are learning more about how we can help protect ourselves through diet and exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices. The concept of brain health is taking hold.
But as one of our leading donors recently noted, we are facing a dementia tsunami in Canada. MPs from the major federal political parties and a Senate committee are calling for a national dementia strategy. It is desperately needed, and with it an effective action plan that guarantees implementation.
I believe we have an ally in Health Minister Jane Philpott, who spoke movingly and tearfully last fall about her father’s battles with Alzheimer’s.
I hope we also see a dementia strategy in Ontario, given that the provinces take the lead in health care.
But as we develop a plan, we must remember that it is an unequal affliction. For every 3 men struck by Alzheimer’s, 7 women will be claimed.
All who suffer from it are deserving of all the support we can muster. But if we are to fully understand it, we must investigate why the gender imbalance is so stark.
On this International Women’s Day, women’s brain health is a cause we should all support.
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