Jennifer Hilborn’s childhood memories of her mother, Nancy, are crystal clear.
“She was one of the most loving, caring, classy women, she was a registered interior designer, she had wonderful taste,” recalled Hilborn. “She led a big life”
However, the poise and grace of her elegant role model started to decline when Nancy hit her late 60s.
“In the kitchen was the first place I noticed it,” said Hilborn. “She would stand there and literally count every green bean for each guest, and this was a woman who knew how to host. Then we got into things like getting lost, forgetting appointments, and struggling to find the right words.”
The doctors referred to it as cognitive impairment, most likely the start of Alzheimer’s. Over time things became even more challenging, especially when Nancy lost her driver’s license and had to move into assisted living.
“She got a little bit aggressive. She would wander. She became a totally different person,” said Hilborn. “It’s not just about missing your keys, the disease is attacking your brain.”
Hilborn is grateful that her mother took the time to have an up-to-date will, and had her power of attorney in order. She said having those plans in place made a tough situation easier to navigate.
For women, the statistics are startling. Lynn Posluns is the founder and president of the Women’s Brain Health Initiative. The registered charity focuses on raising money and awareness to combat brain aging diseases that affect women.
“Women succumb to brain aging disease twice as much as men,” said Posluns. “Almost 70 per cent of Alzheimer sufferers are women.”
For Hilborn, those numbers hit home. In addition to her mother, her grandmother also had Alzheimer’s. This year, Hilborn learned she too has a genetic indicator for the disease. Now she is doing everything she can to take care of her brain, with the hope of it paying off in the future.
“I practice healthy eating, regular exercise, I’m reducing my stress, and getting lots of sleep … or at least doing my best,” said Hilborn.
Posluns said what most people don’t realize is how 40 per cent of all cases of dementia can be avoided through lifestyle choices.
“By the time symptoms of the disease like Alzheimer’s occur it’s likely that the damage has happened 20-25 years prior,” said Posluns.
“So really Alzheimer’s is a mid-life disease whose symptoms show up in old age.”
In recognition, the Government of Canada has declared Dec. 2 as Women’s Brain Health Day. Thursday marks the third annual observance and so far more than $1.2 million has been raised to fund gender-based research.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, more than 400,000 Canadians aged 65 and older are living with dementia, with two-thirds of them being women.
Hilborn’s mother, now 82, lives a short 20-minute walk away. Even though she doesn’t recognize her daughter, Hilborn knows the loving bond between them is still strong.
“She will sometimes make her lips into a kiss and give me a kiss and lean into that hug, so that does feel really good, that part is still there.”