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The other night, in search of a bedtime story for my daughter, I reached for a new copy of Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever that a friend had given her. If you’ve never read it before, it’s a shamelessly sappy tale about a mother’s enduring love that, years ago, would have set my eyes rolling. Now, I could barely get through the last pages; tears blurred my vision and a serious lump formed in my throat.
I’m Wency Leung, a reporter for The Globe and Mail, focusing on brain health. My own brain hasn’t been the same since I became a mother five years ago.
After blinking hard and kissing my fluffy-haired kid goodnight, I went downstairs and turned to my husband: What on earth is going on with me? I’ve become uncharacteristically sentimental. I once prided myself in having a good memory, but now I’m constantly losing my phone, and forgetting the names of other parents.
My one comfort: It’s not just me.
As Chelsea Conaboy writes in The Boston Globe magazine, women’s brains undergo a major makeover as they enter motherhood, primed by a flood of hormones during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. While some brain changes subside over time, other functional and structural alterations can be lasting. And though parenthood can, no doubt, be life-changing for men too, likely also changing their brains, some of the changes found in mothers’ brains have not been found in fathers’.
It’s controversial to talk about differences between male and female brains. The Atlantic explores this hot debate in this article, quoting U.S. neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
“People say men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but the brain is a unisex organ,” she says.
On average, men’s brains have been shown to be slightly bigger than women’s, the magazine notes, but Eliot says that’s because all of men’s organs are generally bigger, and that doesn’t mean they function differently.
I wholly agree one sex isn’t smarter than the other, and that some sex differences can be dangerously exaggerated. But the view that women’s brains are just the same as men’s fails to address real differences in how each is affected by brain trauma, disorders and diseases.
As my colleague Carly Weeks reported earlier this year, women are more likely to die from stroke, and have worse outcomes than men. An earlier report by Mahnoor Yawar highlighted research that shows girls are twice as likely to experience long-term concussion symptoms as boys. Meanwhile, according to The Guardian, one in two women will have dementia, Parkinson’s disease or stroke in their lifetime, compared with one in three men.
Some of these disparities may be explained by social and cultural factors, including gender biases (unconscious or otherwise) in how patients are treated. For example, Michelle Baril-Price writes about how her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder was undiagnosed for most of her life because she didn’t fit the stereotype – one based on boys.
But we won’t know what kind of biological reasons for these health disparities exist, as long as we keep assuming the brain is unisex.
This article, published by the health site Stat, points out that women have historically been excluded in clinical trials of all kinds, while researchers have neglected to consider sex as a biological variable. To get a better handle on why a disease like Alzheimer’s affects men differently than women, researchers will need to do a better job of including female patients. It’s not a zero-sum game: parsing the differences between men’s and women’s brains can benefit everyone.
What else we’re reading:
I’m not alone in wanting to hide under the covers and curl up in ball whenever I encounter news about the environment. In this essay, Mary Annaise Heglar puts into words my anxiety and despair. She gives readers permission to feel depressed about climate change, but reasons that our individual failures to adequately reduce, reuse and recycle are not to blame for the impending demise of our planet. Rather, she cites an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that attributes a whopping 71 per cent of global climate emissions to a mere 100 companies. Sure, it’s okay to grieve, she argues, but now is no time to pretend climate change isn’t happening.
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