Q. I’ve heard that women who have dementia retain verbal memory longer than men do. Is this really true?
A. Yes. In the early stages of dementia women’s verbal memory skills are better than men’s, even when they have a similar amount of brain shrinkage.
This gender advantage disappears once dementia progresses and atrophy of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for verbal memory, becomes more extensive.
A new study compared verbal memory and neurodegeneration in men and women in 1,308 participants; some had Alzheimer’s disease, others had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and some had no cognitive impairment.
Of those with no cognitive impairment, women had better verbal recall than men, irrespective of hippocampus size. Among participants with mild cognitive impairment, women did better than men on verbal memory tests, but their performance was unrelated to relative hippocampal volume.
For those with Alzheimer’s, where loss of hippocampal volume is greater than in mild cognitive impairment, being female was no advantage for verbal recall.
“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," study author Erin E. Sundermann, Ph.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., said in a statement.
"Because verbal memory tests are used to diagnose people with Alzheimer’s disease and its precursor, mild cognitive impairment, these tests may fail to detect mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in women until they are further along in the disease.”
The results were published in 2016 in Neurology.
Marian Freedman is a freelance medical editor and writer based in Watchung, NJ. She is a contributing editor to Contemporary Pediatrics, as well as chief editor for MedEdits, a medical education consulting firm.