Women have a better memory capacity than males. Not surprisingly, many studies have found the superiority of female verbal memory over male memory. In addition, although the lack of mental clarity – what the experts call ‘brain fog’ – that occurs over the years affects both sexes equally, the prevalence of mild cognitive impairment is markedly higher in males. However, women are twice as likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. So, of the 5.4 million Americans diagnosed with the disease, about two-thirds are women. And this greater female risk of memory impairment, what is the reason? According to a study carried out by researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, hormonal changes that, regardless of chronological age, occur in women during menopause, highlighting the role that Female hormones, especially estradiol, play a role in maintaining the memory function.
As Jill M. Goldstein, the author of the research published in the journal Menopause, explains, for years, the dominant belief in this area was that women were at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease simply because they had longer life expectancy. A belief, moreover, that was perpetuated by research carried out in the advanced stages of life, not in middle age, which is when key hormonal transitions take place and when changes in memory begin to appear.
The objective of the study was to evaluate the causes that, over the years, explain possible gender differences in cognitive functions. For this, the authors had the participation of 200 healthy women and men between the ages of 47 and 55 years.
Since the participants did not show signs of dementia or memory loss, the researchers had to resort to specific neurophysiological tests to rigorously evaluate the different forms of learning and memorization and, thus, obtain a more vision needs the cognitive deficits that can present to the different ages.
The results showed that, compared to males of the same age, women always performed better on memory tests. Except for one exception: postmenopausal women, who obtained results similar to those of their homonyms – and worse than those of the rest of the study participants – in the initial learning and retention of information tests.
The findings suggest changes in the frontal areas of the brain, ie brain regions involved in short-term memory and in so-called ‘executive functions’, advanced cognitive abilities such as organization, structuring and evaluation of information.
Finally, the authors evaluated the hormonal levels of all participants. And what they found was that the higher the levels of estradiol – that is, the estrogen with the greatest brain effects – the better the results on the memory tests. That is, steroid hormones, especially estradiol in the case of women, seem to play a key role in the preservation of memory.
As Jill Goldstein points out, “we need to be able to identify at an early age those most at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. A critical need because the treatments that are administered after the onset of the disease are ineffective. We hope that our results will provide early clues in middle age to help identify people who, in the middle years of their middle years, are at high risk, as well as to assess how this risk may differ between women and men “.
To the date, the authors are already developing a tool to identify people with greater susceptibility to developing Alzheimer’s disease. A tool that, valid for both sexes, will include genetic risk factors and other characteristics that are already known to affect the deterioration of memory.
As Jill Goldstein concludes, “Alzheimer’s disease is one of the great public health challenges of our time. It is imperative that we understand how memory can be preserved throughout life and that we contemplate gender differences in future studies and in new therapeutic strategies”.