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Women's Brain Health Needs to Be a Priority, Too

04/23/2015 05:36 EDT | Updated 06/23/2015 05:59 EDT
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We're currently going through a health trend that stresses the importance of an active lifestyle for your body. But what are we doing to maintain a healthy mind?

When I first launched the Women's Brain Health Initiative (WBHI) a few years ago, my primary goal was to create awareness about women's brain aging disorders. It was shocking to me that women suffer from depression, stroke and dementia twice as much as men as they age, but brain health research was male-focused.

We were thrilled that Indigo's CEO Heather Reisman generously hosted our Canadian launch event and so honoured that Huffington Post's editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington delivered a heartfelt keynote address. With the creation of WBHI, we've been committed to leveling the research playing field and now our messaging is starting to grow and expand from Canada outwards.

A few weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the launch of the Women's Brain Health Initiative in the United States. I was joined by some of the brightest and most beautiful minds to celebrate the charity's arrival into the country. Martha Stewart, Trudie Styler, Wendi Murdoch and Ivanka Trump hosted the glamorous affair at the Stephan Weiss Studio, home of Donna Karan's Urban Zen Foundation in New York. Doctors Lisa Airen and Trevor Born chaired the evening, with the highly respected Pauline Maki, PhD reinforcing the need for more research focused on women to protect their brain health as they age.

As the evening progressed, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for the work we are doing. As each host shared a personal story and their own experiences with brain health, it became more and more obvious that the need to educate and protect women's brains is a priority. Catch the highlights from the memorable evening here.

So how can we continue the dialogue and build on this momentum to combat women's brain aging diseases?

The more proactive we are today, the less reactive we can be tomorrow. One of the best ways to reduce your risk is to practice at an early age the six pillars for a healthy brain. Research shows that by the time dementia symptoms occur, damage to the brain has happened 20-30 years prior. The challenge is to engage a younger asymptomatic audience, those in their thirties and forties, on ways to reduce their cognitive impairment risk rather than waiting until they're in their seventies to start thinking about their brain health. Whether someone is genetically pre-disposed or not, experts agree that many brain-aging diseases are lifestyle related. You can't control your age, your genes or your family history but there are activities that you can control to keep your memory intact as long as possible.

1. Regular Exercise: Exercise helps with blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and may even increase the size of the hippocampus (the part of your brain where memories are stored). Take advantage of your interests to try something new to stay in shape, be it kick-boxing, Pilates or paddleboarding.

2. Healthy Diet : What you put in your body has a direct affect on its performance ability but also impacts the health of your brain. The MIND Diet is the new gold standard. A combination of the Mediterranean Diet (fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains) and the Dash Diet for cardiovascular health, can improve your cognitive outcome with even modest adherence.

3. Mental Stimulation: Exercise your brain just like you would with your muscles. Whether it's studying another language, learning how to tango, or simply using your less dominant hand to brush your teeth, learning something new develops new neural pathways. This brain plasticity helps boost your cognitive reserve.

4. Stress Management: Everyone knows that stress isn't good for the body, and the same goes for the mind as well. Not to be confused with a good challenge, it's the chronic levels of stress that can age cells prematurely and interfere with our mental health. It's important to be able to deal with what is troubling us in order to stay at ease. Mindfulness meditation has been proven as one effective method for keeping our stress in check.

5. Quality Sleep: When you don't sleep enough, you're preventing your brain from getting the rest that it needs, allowing neurons the opportunity to reconnect or make new connections. Try and give your brain the quality sleep it needs to stay sharp. New research indicates poor sleep can lead to the development of Alzheimer's.

6. Active Social Life: Isolation can lead to depression, which can be a precursor to dementia, so it's important to do what you love with whom you love to do it. Older adults who stay connected socially are more likely to retain their memories and cognitive abilities later in life.

With these specific, and manageable, lifestyle changes, we can knock years off of our brain age and protect our mental vitality.

I'm thrilled to be in such good company, as there are already some fabulous women who have begun the conversation on women's brain health in the U.S.; Maria Shriver is an excellent example with her Wipe out Alzheimer's Challenge. Her social action campaign engages and educates women in the fight against Alzheimer's. The Big Wall of Empowerment is a visual testimony to women everywhere who are using their brains to wipe out this disease. I am moved to be among such creators of change.

This is only the beginning for women's brain health research and education. As we learn more about maintaining healthy brains and we continue to take part in the movement to improve our cognitive outcomes, we can help our generation and the next to stay brain strong. Being among some of the most illustrious women for a common objective made me realize that we can do anything that we set our (healthy) minds to!

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