The Brainiac: Aging, Sex & Memory
Photography, Dave Chan
Philanthropist Lynn Posluns thinks science has ignored women’s brain health for too long. So She takes her advocacy to Ottawa for action.
“When I was studying [medicine], we saw women as little men in drag,” Liberal health critic Dr. Hedy Fry dryly reminded politicians and their aides, who packed the Senate’s Banking Committee Room last May for the introduction of the Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI), a new national charity. “No one understood the depth of the differences between men and women,” she explained.
That scientific apathy surrounding gender difference had incensed Lynn Posluns, founder of the initiative. “It’s frightening to learn that almost 70 per cent of new Alzheimer sufferers will be women and that women suffer from depression, stroke and dementia twice as much as men,” she told the politicos.
Guest speaker Jens Pruessner, PhD, director, McGill Centre for Studies in Aging in Montreal, an expert on the effect of stress on the brain, gave one example of why there is a need to do research in women’s brain health. Estrogen protects women’s brains from the negative effect of the stress hormone, cortisol, but as estrogen wanes after menopause, this effect disappears. An enzyme in men’s brains, however, continues to convert some testosterone to estrogen, safeguarding a man’s brain cells.
Posluns’ reserves are already stocked with a master’s degree in business administration and a business career that included a term as president of Fairweather, a women’s fashion retail chain. Today, she’s managing director of Cedarpoint Investments, an investment firm started by her father, Wilfred Posluns. The head of a vast clothing empire in the ’70s and ’80s, he had raised $100 million for charitable causes that included Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Health (now Baycrest Health Sciences).
Home-schooled in philanthropy, Posluns founded the Women of Baycrest in 2009 while serving on the board of the Baycrest Foundation, which supports the renowned centre of care and geriatric research. Within a year, Women of Baycrest had raised $1 million of a $5 million target for the first endowed chair in women’s brain health and aging and financial backing for female scientists working on those concerns.
Then came the realization that a more ambitious program could have a much wider impact than one under the umbrella of a Toronto-based institution. A stand-alone Women’s Brain Health Initiative could raise money separately from donors or government sources that would continue to support Baycrest, then fund research opportunities and deliver information to women in Canada and preferably globally on how to maintain their cognitive abilities.
Also introduced at the affair was the Hope-Knot (www.hopeknot.org), a delicate round silver symbol enclosing a stylized brain (shown above), designed by Toronto jeweller Mark Lash, representing the interconnectivity of the brain. It’s a reminder of the importance of memory and cognitive thought – and of the significant women in our lives.
But if events like this provide glamour and cash for the WBHI, its founder’s passionate focus also falls on scientific evidence that will end dementias, depression, stroke and other conditions that affect the brains of some aging women.
No wonder she’s almost giddy at the thought of an invitation-only forum in Montreal this past August that will link researchers from across Canada with funders like the WBHI. In fact, the fledgling initiative was asked to become a partner, along with well-established institutions like the ASC, in the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA), the host of the forum. “This is really great for us in terms of credibility positioning, as well as having the opportunity to know where the money can go,” she says. Potential recipients of the funds will learn their work must focus on an aspect of women’s brain aging or “top up existing research so they take gender into account,” she notes. The CCNA also has international connections that could later help Posluns fund studies beyond Canada’s borders.
Part of the WBHI’s mission is to give women an opportunity to learn how to keep their brains healthy longer. During her term as chair, the Women of Baycrest hosted two popular events where scientists talked in lay terms about brain health. Using that model, she’s planning a six-city program this fall with local experts involved. “I want to access these scientists, but it will also let people know that we exist outside of Toronto,” she notes. Video clips from those events will let people access the information from the WBHI website (www.womensbrain health.org), itself an educational tool Posluns is careful to stock with facts from credible sources.