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Exercise as Medicine: How Exercise Affects the Brains of Men and Women Differently

Research stories January 14, 2021
Dr. Cindy Barha

Including sex and gender considerations into the reseach we support is improving the way we design, implement, and scale up novel health interventions.

A case in point is Dr. Cindy Barha, a researcher who received a 2017 Brain Canada - Alzheimer’s Association Research Fellowship, and studies sex differences in exercise efficiency. “As a postdoctoral fellow, the support from Brain Canada has allowed me to pursue my interest in promoting women’s brain health. In Canada, Alzheimer’s disease is more prevalent in females. Thus, it is essential to understand sex differences in dementia prevention strategies, including exercise interventions. My goal is to understand for whom and how exercise benefits cognitive and brain health, by examining sex differences in cognitive response to exercise and determining the underlying mechanisms,” said Dr. Barha.

Dr. Barha, based at the University of British Columbia, is conducting an exercise study of male and female participants with mild cognitive impairment. She measures the participants’ levels of estrogen, testosterone, cortisol and Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) before and after the exercise intervention. The results of this study may provide new information on how exercise affects the brains of men and women differently.

Given the immense health and financial burden imposed by dementia, my proposed research could have a major impact in Canada and internationally by advancing our ability to use ‘exercise as medicine’ in a precise, specific manner for women and men to promote healthy brain aging,” said Dr. Barha.

Ultimately, Dr. Barha’s research could help guide the design of sex-specific exercise interventions to reduce Alzheimer’s risk – a disease whose economic burden is expected to reach $16.6 billion by 2031.