Gender Differences in Alzheimer's Diagnosis

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Research shows that the onset of Alzheimer’s and early symptoms of the disease can be affected by several factors. For example, studies have shown that early symptoms—and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s—may be delayed in highly educated people and people with high IQs because they are often able to compensate for Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain. This idea is called the cognitive reserve theory. After Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, cognitive decline actually develops more quickly in these individuals because the disease is more advanced when it is discovered.

According to a recent study, cognitive differences between men and women also may affect Alzheimer’s onset and progression. When it comes to verbal memory, women typically outperform men. Therefore, researchers hypothesized that this gender-specific form of cognitive reserve could also delay the onset of early Alzheimer’s symptoms and hasten cognitive decline after diagnosis in women. This concept is important because verbal memory deficit evaluations used to diagnose mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s are currently not gender-specific. Consequently, Alzheimer’s diagnosis—and treatment—may often be delayed in women.

For the study, researchers used information from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) database involving more than 1,500 participants between the ages of 55 and 90. Participants had normal cognitive function, or were diagnosed with early or late mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers examined brain imaging tests (MRI scans) and neuropsychological and clinical assessments—including cognitive evaluations.

Although this study has limitations, researchers suggest their findings support the cognitive reserve theory—including gender-specific aspects. According to researchers, creating gender-based norms in clinical memory tests may help improve Alzheimer’s diagnosis in women.

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Source: 2016 American Academy of Neurology