Six steps to help keep your brain healthy

Healthy aging
Matters Beyond Wealth

Learn why brain health for women matters, including tools and resources to help you develop better habits to keep your brain healthy

"There are certain things that the science is showing that you should be doing … to protect your cognitive health. So, we talk about the six pillars of brain health, which are the lifestyle choices that you can make, and you can modify that can reduce your risk.”
Lynn Posluns, founder, president, and CEO of Women's Brain Health Initiative.

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Transcript

Intro Speaker:

Hello, and welcome to Matters Beyond Wealth with your host, Leanne Kaufman, president and CEO of RBC Royal Trust. For most of us, talking about subjects like aging, late life, and estate planning isn’t easy. That’s why we’re going to help get the conversation started on this podcast while benefiting from the insights and expertise of some of the country’s top experts. We want to bring you information today that will help to protect you and your family in the future. Now, here’s your host, Leanne.

Leanne Kaufman:

Research shows females account for about 70 percent of people living with dementia and brain aging diseases, then why is it that most research on brain aging disorders is conducted on men’s brains? Our guest today had that same question, and over the last decade, she has built the largest trusted resource of information specific to women’s brain health.

Hello, I’m Leanne Kaufman and welcome to RBC Wealth Management Canada’s Matters Beyond Wealth. My guest today is Lynn Posluns, founder, president, and CEO of Women’s Brain Health Initiative. Launched in 2012, Women’s Brain Health focuses its resources on research to combat brain aging disorders and create science-based preventative health programs to prolong cognitive vitality for women. Prior to starting Women’s Brain Health, Lynn held several executive positions within the retail and fashion industries, and throughout her career has raised millions of dollars for many philanthropic causes focused primarily in the healthcare industry. Lynn has received numerous awards for her work in philanthropy and giving back to the community, including Women’s Executive Network’s Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women Award. In December 2021, Lynn was appointed as a member to the Order of Canada for her contribution to research on cognitive health and aging through the founding of Women’s Brain Health Initiative.

Lynn, thank you so much for being here with me today to discuss brain health for women and why this Matters Beyond Wealth.

Lynn Posluns:

Thanks for having me, Leanne.

Leanne Kaufman:

So, tell us about Women’s Brain Health Initiative. Why did you start this organization? What was the impetus for your interest?

Lynn Posluns:

Well, I guess I was at that age and stage in my life where my cognitive health started to matter. I would walk out of the mall and couldn’t find my car in the parking lot, worse I was on my cell phone looking for my cell phone. When I discovered through my contacts in the scientific community that women were more susceptible to brain aging diseases, but research focused primarily on men, I started to worry that this didn’t sit well with me particularly. I started to reach out to people that I knew, different philanthropists, different people that supported women’s causes, and I was fortunate to connect with Heather Reisman, the CEO of Chapters Indigo. She’s a tremendous influencer and a philanthropist in her own right, and she sort of mentored me and encouraged me to start Women’s Brain Health Initiative. This was about 11 years ago now, and she hosted an event for me in her home and invited Arianna Huffington from Huffington Post to speak, which was great. We had some guests there and really, we raised our initial seed funding to start the charity off.

We really have two sides of our mission: one is to fund the research side and level that research playing field and fund the female side of the story, but also to educate people about what they could do to protect their cognitive vitality as they age.

Leanne Kaufman:

I’m curious, I’m sure everyone listening is curious, why is all the research focused on men?

Lynn Posluns:

I think it’s for a few reasons: one, historically there’s something called bikini medicine, and which is basically anything that bikini covers. They’re going to look at by—scientists is going to look at by—sex and gender. So, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, menopause, pregnancy, obviously they’re going to consider sex, but the philosophy was, and still is primarily today, research is expensive. Even at the lab rat level of research, it’s expensive. So, if you could study male—because there’s no hormone cycle, so in the rat case you might need 10 times the number of rats to discount for the hormone cycle. If you can study male and apply it to female that should be good enough. But the same way we recognize 10 years ago women’s heart attack symptoms may present differently than a man’s, research in terms of brain aging diseases needs to study men and women and understand if there is a difference and if there is a difference where it is and what we can do about it.

It’s not that we don’t want scientists not to study men. We want to level that research playing field and top up the funding and make sure that in clinical trials they consider both women and men. Also, in terms of Alzheimer’s, when they were dealing with patients, they went to veterans hospitals, which at the time was primarily men. So, there are a few reasons cost being one, access being another, the whole thalidomide issue with drugs and what the impact was on a woman who was pregnant. All of those things wrapped together I think created this vacuum of research for women.

Leanne Kaufman:

Wow! Well, we’re delighted that you and your organization have stepped in to help speak for the other 50 percent of the population. I’ve heard you speak certainly about the six pillars of brain health, and I think that’s probably more on the preventative side of your mission as you mentioned earlier. Can you tell us a little bit more about what these six pillars are?

Lynn Posluns:

Yes, so the evidence is showing two things: one is that lifestyle plays a really significant role in terms of your cognitive health. You could have the Alzheimer’s gene and not get Alzheimer’s disease, you could not have the gene and still succumb to Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s being the biggest cause of dementia—well, why is that? And that’s the influence that lifestyle has in terms of your risk profile. There are certain things that the science is showing that you should be doing and things that you shouldn’t be doing in order to protect your cognitive health. So, we talk about the six pillars of brain health, which are the lifestyle choices that you can make and you can modify that can reduce your risk. So, what are those? Mental stimulation, you have to exercise your brain like it’s a muscle. This builds new cognitive reserve. As one part of your brain starts to falter, other parts can take over. So mental stimulation is very important, and again, the more complex the better, but it can be simple. If you’re right-handed, use your left-hand, drive a different way to work. But again, learn a new language, learn to tango dance, the more complex the better.

The second thing would be exercise, physical exercise. This increases the blood flow and the oxygen to your brain, which is very important. It also helps enhance the size of the hippocampus with the neurons in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for memory storage and learning, so physical exercise, very important.

Nutrition, we know that what you eat and what you don’t eat is important for your brain. Sugar, salt, fat, cross the blood brain barrier and put holes in your brain. There’s something called the mind diet, which the evidence shows is the most beneficial for your cognitive health. It’s a combination of the Mediterranean style diet, so that’s fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, lean protein combined with the DASH diet, which is low sodium to control hypertension. It’s easier to follow then the Mediterranean style diet alone, and this has shown to be the most cognitively protective, so, it’s called the mind diet. Nutrition is very important.

Social activity, also very important. Staying socially connected, particularly hard during COVID of course, but staying socially connected with friends and family reduces your risk for depression and isolation, both of which are precursors to dementia.

Stress reduction, stress prematurely ages all your cells including your brain cells. So, you have to…everybody has stress in their life, but it’s chronic levels of stress that’s very harmful for your brain health. You have to engage in practices that are going to keep your stress under control. It might be journaling, it might be listening to music. Mindfulness meditation has proven to be very helpful for keeping stress in check.

And the last thing is sleep. Again, most women don’t sleep well, particularly as we get older, but sleep helps get rid of the toxins in your brain and helps consolidate memory.

Those are the six pillars of brain health, and the more habits you do against those six pillars, cumulatively the better. So, you can’t just say, “Oh, I ate my blueberries today with my breakfast, I’m good.” It’s doing many small habits against those six pillars that has proven to be the most impactful in terms of protection.

Leanne Kaufman:

I know you’ve established a way to help people track their habits, we’ll talk about that in a second. The other thing that has always struck me when I’ve listened to you speak is that it’s not just something that you worry about when you’re already well down the aging path. It’s something that even our younger female listeners need to be thinking about, right?

Lynn Posluns:

Yeah, again, what this evidence is showing is that the earlier you start engaging in these healthy lifestyle choices, the stronger the protective effect will be. I remember Dr. Sandra Black from Sunnybrook Hospital talking about a study where she looked at, where they looked, it wasn’t her study, but they were looking through neuroimaging at the decade where exercise has the biggest impact on your cognitive vitality when you’re in your 70s and 80s, and it’s in your 20s. What 20-year-old thinks about what they’re doing is going to impact the health of their brain when they’re in their 70s? It just goes to show you that the younger you are, the stronger the protective effect will be. Much of the imagery around diseases like Alzheimer’s is an old person in a wheelchair, but that’s a very late-stage person. We don’t want to get there, so the more you can do the earlier in life, the better.

Leanne Kaufman:

So, we talked about the habits and the prevention, let’s go back to the research for a minute. Are you able to give us a little glimpse into what research is taking place now that will help us get a better understanding of these brain aging diseases and how to prevent them?

Lynn Posluns:

One of the things that we fund alongside CIHR, the Canadian Institute of Health Research is the world’s first research chair in Women’s Brain Health and Aging, and that was awarded to Dr. Gillian Einstein at the University of Toronto. She’s now, I think six years into that term, and Gill’s focus is on hormone depletion and its impact on women. As women go through menopause they no longer produce estrogen, and estrogen is neuroprotective. Men continue to produce estrogen because the testosterone converts to estrogen in the brain. So, she’s looking at estrogen and what the impact is for women in terms of cognitive health. We do know that if a woman premenopause has to have a hysterectomy and a double oophorectomy—so her ovaries are removed—the incidence of dementia can be as high as 200 percent. So, we do know hormones play a role, and that’s where Gill’s focus is right now. She’s also looking at sleep deprivation and what that does for brain health. We’re also funding alongside Brain Canada, sex and gender expansion grants. Like I said, studying the science is expensive, so we’re topping up funding to make sure that these scientists are considering sex and gender in research, but research takes a while, so we’ll see the outcome of the money that we are putting towards sex and gender.

Leanne Kaufman:

Wow, great work and can’t wait to hear as it continues to develop.

Now, we talked for a minute a bit earlier about those habits, and I teased it that they have a tracking. So, Women’s Brain Health Initiative recently launched a new app called Brain Fit. In fact, you launched it on your fourth annual Women’s Brain Health Day, and congratulations on having Women’s Brain Health Day recognized as well. Can you tell us a little bit about what the app does and some of its unique features?

Lynn Posluns:

Yes, and thanks for asking. So, we wanted to provide the public with a free tool and Brain Fit Habit Tracker is a free app available on both iOS and Android that was based on the six pillars of brain health. There are different habit trackers out there, but ours is unique because it has focus on all six pillars. There’s over a hundred habits that you can choose from. It’s flexible and customizable, so, if we tell you, you have to hydrate your brain—so water’s very important, drinking lots of water—if we tell you seven or eight glasses of water a day and you go, “You know what, that’s just too much for me. I’m in the bathroom all the time.” You can reduce it to five, that’s fine. It’s customizable. It’s also fully secure.

I don’t know what habits you picked specifically, but we do have some cumulative data that I can tell you about already. We already have 20,000, over 20,000 downloads, which is absolutely fantastic—for this kind of habit tracker unheard of. It also has all a whole explorer section, which is all the evidence. So, if you want to know why we suggest that you eat the rainbow of foods or why you should do 10 more squats a day, the evidence as to why that is beneficial for your brain is in the explorer section and that’s articles and podcasts and videos. We’re really fortunate that this was funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, PHAC, but we also had support from other organizations, including of course, RBC, which is really important because these additional organizations can help share the information and the availability of this app.

Leanne Kaufman:

I think it’s so important and such a great feature of the app that it’s both the habit tracker, but also all of your great resources and your education and awareness material. It does more than just track your habits, right? It’s a great place to go to learn.

Lynn Posluns:

Why a habit tracker is important: a lot of people have good intentions of creating healthy habits. Everybody knows they shouldn’t smoke, but there’s still people that smoke. So, keeping track of your habits actually makes you accountable to yourself. You can obviously share the results with others as well, and that feature is available, but when you have to monitor, did I do what I say I was going to do either on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? I think it helps you stay positive and stay focused and stay on track, really, which is the purpose behind a tracker. And the fact that it’s mobile makes it easier for people to track and maintain their habits.

We’re working on 2.0 now, and we hope to release it next year on Women’s Brain Health Day. The intention there is to create a web-based version because not everybody uses mobile apps. We want to give people the opportunity to go on our website and do it as well, but it also will link to Apple Health Kit or Google Fit. So you’re not duplicating information. So that’s an important feature that we’re working on. The other component that we’re also working on now actually is converting everything into French as well, so that we can include the Francophone market in the opportunity of using the features of the app.

Leanne Kaufman:

All great enhancements, and we know the power of the nudge. I mean, my watch tells me that I need to stand up every hour and I often listen to it. So, beyond the app and some of the stuff we’ve talked about, what other initiatives does Women’s Brain Health Organization provide to the public?

Lynn Posluns:

So, we have a free magazine, it’s called Mind Over Matter, and it’s co-funded by Brain Canada, which is part of Health Canada. This is, again, a resource that’s available to people just by going onto our website and requesting one. It’s filled with all kinds of evidence-based articles, again about the best ways that you can protect your cognitive health or things that are good for your brain health as well as things that are harmful for your brain health. We have lots of guest features. We’ve included you, for instance, Leanne, on the implications as you’re aging in terms of managing your financial resources and the importance of that. It’s a wonderful tool for caregivers and just for people that want to age well. We also have a podcast series and a video series based on the success of the magazine that again, gives people additional information. People like to learn different ways, so we’ve got reading materials, we’ve got listening materials, we got watching materials. Again, all free for people to access.

Leanne Kaufman:

Wonderful resources and full of information that really people aren’t getting elsewhere, so kudos to the whole team. You mentioned caregivers in the last question there, and for those that are caring for people with diseases that include cognitive impairment or dementia or for those that are living with it themselves, do you have any advice or guidance? I mean, I know that’s a very broad question, but it would be kind of remiss not to give a little nod and try to offer some advice of places to get started, or broad strokes for those living with it or caring for those living with it.

Lynn Posluns:

Caregivers often put themselves last, unfortunately, and very often because of the stress of caregiving, they can succumb to diseases like Alzheimer’s themselves. It’s really important for caregivers to really consider themselves as well. Again, the chronic levels of stress are very important to deal with. As I mentioned, we have lots of free resources and I hope people take advantage of them. We have both the podcast and video that you can access through the website with people that have the lived experience as well as caregivers and what they have gone through and what their experience is and what they do to keep the stress in check. So, I encourage people to please take advantage and access these tools that are available to them.

Leanne Kaufman:

Yeah, again, thanks for producing, those are so important. So Lynn, we could talk for 45 more minutes on digging deep into some of these things, but for now, if there’s just one kind of key message or one thing that you would want our listeners to remember about our conversation today, what would that one thing be?

Lynn Posluns:

Do what you can as early in life as you can, because dementia is not inevitable. You could have the risk gene, and so you’re more likely to succumb, but you want to delay, if not prevent the disease altogether. We do know from the science today that there are things that you can do to control your cognitive destiny and I encourage people for themselves and their loved ones to start young. In fact, you asked about some of the resources that we have. We created a kids program called Brainable. Again, it’s all about the six pillars of brain health, but for the demographic, we call them brain boosters and the things that harm your health, your brain health, we call brain busters. So, concussion, untreated mental illness, excessive social media, dementia down the road, and it’s geared to middle school kids. It’s free thanks to initial funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education. Right now, it’s only in Ontario, but we hope to expand it. It’s been a fantastic program. We can’t fulfill the demand. Actually, we’ve got another waiting list already for fall. The program will reach by this June, 13,000 kids. Parents, teachers and kids I think are understanding the benefits of this program, particularly again, coming out of COVID where they got into some bad habits and maybe need a reset. Too much social media, not enough sleep, bad eating habits. The kids fill out these exit slips at the end, and they’re asked what’s the one thing that they’re going to do more of and what’s the one thing they’re going to do less of based on what they’ve learned? The results were analyzed by researchers at Queen’s University. It was really interesting because again, regardless of whether these kids were in grade five or eight, public school or private school, the answer was the same. They said the number one thing that they recognized they want to do more of was exercise, interesting. The one thing that they recognize they need to do less of to protect their brain health was social media. But I don’t think they know how to get off social media because their parents are on it all the time.

So just interesting information that’s coming out of this. I talked earlier about the evidence that’s coming off of the app. We do know some statistics—again, in aggregate we know that people on average are choosing two habits to track, which is great because if you try and do 20 at a time, you’re never going to do it. So once two are established, you can move on to another set. The number one habit pillar was nutrition, the second one, exercise and the third one, mental stimulation. So, we’re starting to learn what people are gravitating towards, which is good because we’ll continually improve the app based on the information that we are learning.

Leanne Kaufman:

Yeah, it’s a great resource. It goes in both directions, I guess, because it’ll help feed your future way that you’re educating us based on what you learned. Well, Lynn, I always learn something when we get a chance to talk, and selfishly, I have a vested interest in this topic, as much as the rest of the women and that are listening do, for myself and for all of those that I care about. So, I want to just, again, thank you so much for joining us today for sharing all this information and really letting us learn about why Brain Health for Women matters beyond wealth.

Lynn Posluns:

Thanks, Leanne.

Leanne Kaufman:

You can find out more about Lynn on LinkedIn or more about Women’s Brain Health generally at womensbrainhealth.org . If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave a rating and a review. Until next time, I’m Leanne Kaufman. Thank you for joining us.

Outro speaker:

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