The research, conducted at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, included 254 people with Alzheimer’s disease, 672 people with mild cognitive impairment and memory problems, and 390 people with no thinking or memory problems. The researchers measured how much glucose was used in the temporal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for memory, to understand how well participants’ brain cells were functioning. This measurement was compared to their verbal memory skills.
Women scored better on verbal recall tests even when they had mild to moderate problems with brain glucose metabolism, compared to men. Once the participants had advanced metabolism problems, there was not difference in the test scores.
This result adds weight to the “cognitive reserve” theory, which suggests that the way that people use their brains throughout life may help them to be more resilient to damage to brain cells caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Other aspects thought to increase cognitive reserve include higher levels of education and challenging jobs.
Commenting on the research, Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society, said: "We know that women tend to perform better on verbal tests throughout their lives. Now, these results indicate that this way with words could make them more resilient to the effects of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, despite the condition causing similar levels of damage in both men and women. With dementia disproportionately affecting women, understanding how better language skills might be masking the effects of the condition could help doctors to better spot the early warning signs. Although these results provide us with a useful snapshot, we next need to see studies over much longer timeframes for us to fully understand what’s going on.'