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Published on: April 24, 2014
by Marissa Stapley-Ponikowski for Elevate:
New studies show that women are at a higher risk of dementia than men.
Find out why, and what you can do about it.
The Brain Health Initiative
The Women’s Brain Health Initiative (womensbrainhealth.org) was recently launched by high-profile fundraiser Lynn Posluns. Posluns is working hard to build awareness about women’s brain health and the higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s many women face. The initiative also focuses on spreading the news about the three pillars of brain health. Here they are:
a. Mental activity: Research shows that it’s important to regularly exercise the brain with challenging tasks.
b. Exercise: Regular exercise helps with cell regeneration and blood flow to the brain.
c. Nutrition: A low-fat Mediterranean style diet is best to prevent brain disease, since what’s good for your heart is good for your brain.
e. Social Life: Do what you love with those you love.
Professor Walter Rocca, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, recently discovered that when women have hysterectomies (the removal of the uterus), which can happen later in life because of fibroids, pain or heavy periods, many doctors often remove the ovaries as well, even though this isn’t necessarily a required part of the procedure.
Rocca’s study found that ovary removal raises a woman’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease by a staggering 140 per cent. This may be because the ovaries produce the hormone estrogen and estrogen helps prevent the brain from cognitive decline. There is hope for women who must have their ovaries removed, however, according to the study, estrogen replacement therapy brought the Alzheimer’s risk back down to normal.
Gillian Einstein, PhD, a professor, scientist and key player in the women’s brain health research field, stresses the importance of educating oneself. “It’s now a matter of informed consent,” she says. “If a woman is offered the option of having her ovaries removed we can tell her some of the risks and some of the benefits now.”
But the reality is there aren’t a lot of firm answers for women yet about hormones and cognitive decline. In fact, some studies have shown higher risks of dementia in women who are treated with hormone replacement. This is why Einstein is currently conducting a study, funded by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, about what exactly happens to cognition in women who have their ovaries removed prior to natural menopause. “We really need to start thinking about it hard,” says Einstein. “There are so many different things we just don’t know about yet. We need to ask the questions and get some answers.”
The Brain-Diet Connection
Dr. Carol Greenwood, a scientist, professor and researcher with Baycrest, a health research foundation based in Toronto, recently wrote an e-cookbook called MINDfull, along with co-authors Daphna Rabinovitch and Joanna Gryfe. The book was inspired by Greenwood’s own extensive research into the relationship between nutrition and brain health. Find out more at womenofbaycrest.com/mindfull.
Surprisingly, Greenwood advises against searching for super foods, a popular practice in our quick fix-focused society. “We actually don’t have a lot of evidence about these super foods on a human level,” says Dr. Greenwood. This is mainly because so many of the studies are done on animals rather than people. “We do know classes of foods, like cruciferous vegetables, can be beneficial. But we don’t actually know if it’s kale or broccoli or cauliflower.”
Rather than zeroing in on single foods, Dr. Greenwood recommends the following building blocks for a brain-healthy diet:
1. Be Mindful
“I make the argument that what’s south of the neck keeps what’s north of the neck happy,” says Dr. Greenwood. “Where this is especially important is where it relates to our heart and blood vessels.” So when you eat something you know is good for the health of your heart, or engage in a lifestyle choice, like regular exercise, you can feel doubly good: you’re helping your brain out, too.
“One of the things unique to the brain is its need for the omega-3 fats,” says Dr. Greenwood. In fact, the brain has higher concentrations of the omegas than any other tissue in the body. But many people try to reach their daily omega quota with omega-fortified foods rather than the straight goods.
Dr. Greenwood says there just isn’t enough evidence that omega-fortified foods are beneficial. This means working in foods that are naturally high in omegas, like walnuts and flax seeds, is the better choice.
3. Go Fishing
Omega-3 fatty acids are the most beneficial to brain health, and the best way to get these is by eating fish. Yet, says Dr. Greenwood, few people consume the recommended two to three servings of fish per week that most nutritionists recommend for optimal health. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the idea of making a fish dinner: “Things like a salmon or tuna sandwich count,” she says. Next, educate yourself on the types of fish that are safe to eat so the idea of eating more fish won’t seem so threatening. (See sidebar.)
Diet is important to brain health, but so is lifestyle. And the younger you can get into great habits, the better. “This is not just a message for 60-year-old women,” says Dr. Greenwood. If you focus now on having an active lifestyle, eating a healthy diet and staying social and mentally engaged, you’ll be rewarded, both with better brain health and a healthier life in general.
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