Do Aging Men Lose Thinking Ability Faster Than Women?

What Women Really Think
Jan. 26 2012 5:37 PM

Aging Men May Lose Thinking Ability Faster Than Women

In a new study released by the Mayo Clinic this month, a research team lead by Prof. Rosebud Roberts found that elderly men may suffer from a subtle condition known a Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) at higher rates and earlier than women. Considered the step between the expected forgetfulness that comes with aging and more severe disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s, MCI is characterized by difficulty with moderate mental tasks like problem solving and multi-tasking. Patients with the condition do not usually need special care in their day-to-day lives, but may find the minor mental deficiencies distracting. NPR’s health blog "Shots" reported on the study’s methodology:

The study followed 1,450 people between the ages of 70 and 89 in Olmsted County, Minn., who were free of dementia in 2004. They went through testing every 15 months. After three years, 296 people had developed mild cognitive impairment.

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When standardizing across demographics, about 63 out of 1,000 participants experienced MCI; separated by sex, 72 out of 1,000 men were diagnosed compared to 57 out of 1,000 women. After age 85, however, incidence rates of MCI became effectively equivalent. Moreover, those with higher levels of education were less likely to have MCI, supporting the idea that exercising one’s brain as much as one’s body while aging can help stave off cognitive decline.

Aside from the gender imbalance, one of the most intriguing aspects of the study was the discovery that about one-third of the participants initially diagnosed with MCI eventually saw improved cognitive function. In an editorial published alongside the study in the journal Neurology, Dr. Kenneth Rockwood speculated that this kind of positive change might be expected “if cognitive aging represents not just relentless decline—the brain as innocent bystander— but the outcomes of a struggle between insults and repair mechanisms.”

In other words, our brains may be more resilient—even in old age—than we realize.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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