Depression, stroke and dementia are twice as common in women as in men. Among Alzheimer’s patients, 70 per cent are female. But according to Lynn Posluns, the driving force behind the first “Women’s Brain Health Day,” launched this week, most research on these disorders focus on only one gender — right down to the mice used as study subjects.
A prominent businesswoman and philanthropist, Posluns first became aware of the sex bias in clinical research while working with Baycrest, a geriatric care and research centre. There were clearly huge numbers of women suffering from neurodegenerative disorders, but there didn’t seem to be much science to explain why.
“Historically, most of the studies have been done on males because the hormones in women make (research) more complicated,” says Posluns. “But just because we’re more complex doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study us.”
In 2012, she decided to tackle that gap head-on by establishing the Women’s Brain Health Institute, a global think tank based in Toronto. Since then, the organization has created the first chair in women’s brain health and aging, awarded to University of Toronto professor Gillian Einstein, and is working with both the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada and the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA), a group of 340 neuroscientists focused on dementia research.
“(Researchers) will put women and men together and they’ll control for sex, but what they’re doing is they’ll actually getting rid of any sex effects,” she explains. “What they should be doing is analyzing the men and women separately and seeing if there’s any difference.”
To combat this invisibility, she says, “One of our requirements is that anyone using CCNA data report the sex of the animals they’re studying when they write a paper — as well as actually incorporating sex differences into their research.”
In her own research, Einstein certainly sees the impact of sex on brain health.
“We’re studying women who have their ovaries removed before they would naturally go into menopause,” she says. “Our pilot results suggest that even though it is slight, women with their ovaries removed have poorer memories than women who have kept their ovaries.”
Einstein also points to the shift in ovarian hormones that happens around menopause as a potential factor in dementia.
On Monday, WBHI launched the “Stand Ahead” challenge to raise more money for research on women and the brain. Participants are sponsored to post a video or photo of themselves in a head stand, with Brain Canada (which gets funding from Health Canada) matching donations up to $ 250,000.
Just because we’re more complex doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study us
The spectacle involved — the event’s promotional video includes Jeanne Beker, Pooja Handa and Cheryl Hickey, among others — is par for the course among health philanthropists these days (see: ice bucket showers for ALS and Movember). But as Posluns explains, the WBHI also wanted to engage younger people in their work, “because what you do in your 20s and 30s affects your brain in your 70s and 80s. The earlier you engage in healthy lifestyle choices the stronger the effect will be.”
Of course, for those already in their 70s and 80s — and those who care for them — the urgency of brain research focused on women is obvious. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, there are 25,000 diagnoses of dementia each year at an annual cost of $ 10.4 billion in care. By 2035 there will be close to a million Canadians living with the condition. Meanwhile, says Posluns, there are only two approved drug treatments. And those only help with some of the symptoms some of the time.
“(Alzheimer’s) will become the greatest economic and social disaster of the 21st century if we don’t find answers,” Posluns said. “As we age and mortality rates come down from heart disease and cancer, we’ll live longer but not necessarily healthier. As people get older I think this has become a more feared disease than cancer.”
Female lab rats are clearly needed.