Published on: November 26, 2016
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
While the underlying mechanisms that explain memory differences between men and women are largely unknown, the fact that there are differences remains an intriguing and insightful area of scientific study.
Women have the upper hand in storing and recalling verbal episodic memories, whereas men have the upper hand in storing and recalling visuospatial episodic memories.
Scientists have also discovered that women are very adept at remembering the faces of strangers and nearly anything associated with emotion, which may or may not be stored as episodic memory. Of course, what is important is not who has the best memory but how our memories work, the understanding of which may help resolve the curious observation that the ways in which men and women remember information seem to compliment one another.
One reason why differences in memory formation exist between men and women can be attributed to hormones, primarily estrogen and androgens such as testosterone. Studies of people receiving hormone-based therapies have shed some light on the involvement of hormones in the formation and storage of memories. For example, estrogen replacement therapy in menopausal women improves long-term memory, and testosterone therapy in older men improves short-term memory.
According to a new study published in the March 16, 2016, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, women may have a better memory for words than men despite evidence of similar levels of shrinkage in areas of the brain that show the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, women may remember words more than men. This may delay diagnosis and treatment in women despite the same levels of shrinkage in brain areas linked to the debilitating disease .
These areas show the earliest evidence of the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the 6th leading cause of death among Americans and an estimated two-thirds of people diagnosed with AD are women.
“One way to interpret the results is that because women have better verbal memory skills than men throughout life, women have a buffer of protection against loss of verbal memory before the effects of Alzheimer’s disease kick in,” said Dr. Erin E. Sundermann from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
In another recent study, researchers recruited participants who were part of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. The participants included 235 people with AD, 694 with mild cognitive impairment including memory problems and 379 people without any thinking or memory problems.
The team of researchers measured both verbal memory and the size of the hippocampal area of the brain, the part responsible for verbal memory and is affected by the disease. They compared these two factors and found that women performed better than men on the tests.
Verbal memory tests are used to diagnose patients with AD. These tests might fail in detecting mild cognitive impairment in women. When proper diagnosis is delayed, treatment is not initiated early enough in the disease.
This study sheds light on the need for individualized tests or a separate memory test for women suspected to have AD.
This will allow for early diagnosis and treatment among women, who are more affected by the disease. The study also showed that women showed greater evidence of shrinkage of the hippocampus.
In another study reported in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, a group of scientists set out to question if abnormalities in brain structure and function can occur several decades prior to the onset of cognitive decline. It is in the preceding decades that an intervention is most likely to be effective, when informed by an understanding of factors contributing to the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. In this paper, the researchers examined the timing and exposure of factors contributing to verbal memory performance in later life.
A total of 387 participants from the population-based Women’s Healthy Ageing Project with a mean age at baseline of 49.6 (45 – 55) completed neuropsychiatric assessments and provided clinical information, physical measures and biomarkers as a baseline, and had at least three follow-up visits that included at least one cognitive reassessment.
Over the 20 years of the study follow up with these subjects, researchers found that mid-to-late life physical activity had the strongest effect on better later life verbal memory (0.136 [.058, .214]). The next most likely contributors to verbal memory in late life were the negative effect of cumulative hypertension (-0.033 [-.047, -.0.18] and the beneficial effect of HDL cholesterol (0.818 [0.042, 1.593]).
These findings suggest that midlife interventions focused on physical activity, hypertension control, and achieving optimal levels of HDL cholesterol will help maintain later-life verbal memory skills.
All three studies tell us the same thing – women do in fact, keep verbal memory longer than men. What we also learn is that it’s not too late to make lifestyle changes that will enhance and protect our ability to keep those memories.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER
On Mother’s Day, amazing support for women’s brain health and our initiative from Robin Wright, Diane Lane, Trudie Styler, Teddy Sears, Martha Stewart, Tonya Lewis Lee, Marcia Gay Harden, Donna Karan, and Cecile Richards.
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