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U of T researcher looks into why dementia and depression hit women hardest

Gillian Einstein’s work is breaking new ground in how researchers think about biological and social factors and the ways they relate to health (photo courtesy of Gillian Einstein)

Gillian Einstein is the holder of the inaugural Wilfred and Joyce Posluns chair in women’s brain health and aging

Why is the incidence of depression, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer's significantly higher in women than men?

Women’s health – and women’s brain health, in particular – is something “distinct in itself”, says University of Toronto researcher Gillian Einstein, the holder of the inaugural Wilfred and Joyce Posluns chair in women’s brain health and aging. 

Yet the majority of research into women’s health has so far focused mainly on reproductive health, rather than on other systems like the nervous, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and immune systems and the ways in which they’re influenced by hormones like estrogen.

Einstein is an associate professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. With the support of the Posluns chair – $1 million over five years – Einstein is keen to look into a number of key mysteries surrounding women’s brain health.

“Women are subjected to different life conditions than men,” she says. “A big mystery is why more women have Alzheimer’s disease than men.”

Einstein says with women living longer that could explain the discrepancy. But it could also be that women are subjected to “different life conditions than men.”

There have not been many studies trying to understand if gendered life experiences – like having one's ovaries removed – might affect the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, she says. Reports indicate that those who have their ovaries removed have a higher incidence of dementia.

“One of the things that the Posluns Chair will allow us to do,” says Einstein, “is to study the trajectory of brain changes from having one’s ovaries removed to, say, 13 years later. When do the brain changes start? Are they getting worse over time? Which brain regions are most affected?”

The significance of the Posluns chair being awarded to a researcher from U of T is not lost on Einstein. She points to the calibre of research and the culture of teamwork here.

“My research program wouldn’t be possible without the kind of collaboration of excellent scientists that exists here. There isn’t any project in my lab that doesn’t have at least three or four people who are collaborating on it.”

In addition to pursuing her own research, Einstein is passionate about encouraging students who are interested in studying sex, gender and brain health.

“One of the goals of the chair is to provide graduate students in psychology and neuroscience who are studying the brain and cognition extra financial support if they’re interested in adding sex differences to their studies or adding females or women to their research,” says Einstein. Having more researchers thinking about sex differences and gender and how to incorporate these considerations into their studies would enhance the rigour and relevance of brain and cognition research.

”There are a lot of expectations about the way that women are supposed to be, and sometimes we only research those things,” says Einstein. “Women bear children so we focus enormous energy and time on reproductive health. This chair allows us to study some surprising things that might not be expected.”

There are many examples of sex and gender bias in scientific studies. For example, males and females have both estrogens and androgens and both mediate important biological mechanisms, but there’s a lack of study about testosterone in women or estrogen in men, she says.

“We have actually gendered those hormones as ‘male’ or ‘female’ and then we study them in the sex we think they belong in,” explains Einstein.

The Wilfred and Joyce Posluns chair is an initiative of the late Wilfred Posluns' Family Foundation and the Women's Brain Health Initiative. It is supported through a partnership between the foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Alzheimer Society of Canada and the Ontario Brain Institute.