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More Women Get Alzheimer's, so Why Don't we Study Their Brains?

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I'm fortunate that no one in my immediate family has dementia -- heart and stroke seems to get us ultimately -- but I'm at the stage where I wonder if it's distraction when I can't find my car in the parking lot... or if something more serious is going on. And it scares me.

What is more frightening is learning that almost 70 per cent of new Alzheimer's sufferers will be women, but research today still focuses on men. Early Alzheimer's studies were conducted where scientists had easy access to patients, primarily on men in veteran's hospitals. But even today, at the grass roots level of research, it is the male rat that's studied because the hormones in the female rat make it too complex. Whoa.

Scientists recognized 20 years ago that a man's heart attack was different from a woman's, and addressing those differences meant a healthier outcome for both. Naturally, I wondered who was studying the female aging brain to understand where differences occurred, and what was being done about it -- I was flabbergasted to discover the real lack of female-based research. Besides, with three sons, who was going to look after me in the old folks' home?

In the U.S., someone new succumbs to Alzheimer's -- the most prevalent form of dementia -- every 68 seconds. Worldwide, there are more than 35 million people living with dementia. This number will more than triple by 2050 to more than 115 million!

When symptoms surface it is likely that the damage to the brain began 10 to 20 years prior. The cost of care in Canada alone will be more than $872 billion and 756 million hours in informal care. Women, as the major caregivers, and the most susceptible, will be hardest hit. What does that mean for me as a mother and as a daughter?

Will I become a caregiver for my mother or my in-law parents, or worse yet, will my future include grandchildren who I will not recognize? And like you, I am not alone in my fears. In a recent report a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist stated that Alzheimer's is now ahead of cancer as the most feared disease.

Once I was armed with all this great news about the future of women's brain health, I had to decide what I was going to do about it. The more I learned, the more compelled I felt to raise money to fund research to combat women's brain aging disorders. No stranger to fundraising, I created a unique campaign to raise money for the first research chair in women's aging brain health.

The more people I spoke to about the need to fund research to combat women's brain aging disorders (like Alzheimer's), the more encouraged I became. I raised $2.5 million for Baycrest, a Toronto Health Sciences Centre focused on innovations in aging, but I found that interest was not confined to Toronto. I was hearing from women across Canada, and that really got me thinking: If Canadian women were worried about the quality of their brain health as they aged, then obviously so were women all over the world.

Time to branch out... and so the Women's Brain Health Initiative was born.

Our promise is a simple one. We cannot and will not forget the women in our lives. We will not forget that women are twice as likely to become victims of aging brain disorder -- the most significant health and social crisis facing the world. We cannot forget that there is neither a theory to explain this nor a will to find one. And we will not stand idly by and wait for this oncoming disaster to strike without raising a finger to stop it.

Our mandate is therefore clear and resolute.

We will raise awareness of this imminent crisis, as well as raise money to combat it. We will focus on the stories of those affected instead of just those afflicted, and will raise a global movement inspired to combat women's brain aging disorders through investment in focused and innovative research.

It's not that we don't want to look at men's brains. We just want to level the playing field by ensuring research dollars are also focused on women in the area of aging brain health. As I build this new global foundation, I haven't lost sight of all the women who are frightened because there is a history of dementia in their families, or are frightened because they don't know where to get the information they need to make critical decisions for themselves or a loved one.

The Women's Brain Health Initiative is for women like them. Like us. Committed to sharing information about what researchers are currently studying and what their findings will mean to all of us.

For example, new research has shown that the incidence of dementia increases 140 per cent if you have a hysterectomy and both ovaries removed before natural menopause. That you're more likely to succumb to Alzheimer's if your mother had it than if your father did. And that the majority of Alzheimer's cases are lifestyle related and are not caused by a genetic predisposition.

The good news is that it's not too late to make some effective changes that will have a positive influence on how one ages. There is lots of evidence that what is good for your heart is also good for your brain. Research has shown that good eating habits, exercise, and social connectivity will all have a positive impact on your brain health.

My marketing and business background gave me the fundamentals necessary to bring together a small but dynamic team to create an innovative awareness building campaign. Designed as a movement that escalates concern over the unchecked growth of dementia and other aging brain diseases in women, the campaign reminds us of how our ability for cognitive thought is connected to every aspect of our lives.

Details about the awareness campaign are currently under wraps and will be released soon, but in the meantime to learn more about us, please visit http://womensbrainhealth.org. Together, we can make a difference for women everywhere.