April 16, 2008 -- Men have a reputation for having a bad memory, forgetting birthdays or anniversaries -- or so the stereotype goes. Now, a new study lends some science to the stereotype, at least for older men.
Men 70-plus are more likely than women in that age range to have memory problems and other cognitive impairments, according to researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who presented the finding this week at the American Academy of Neurology 60th annual conference in Chicago.
The research team evaluated what is known as mild cognitive impairment, a transition stage between normal cognitive functioning and dementia, in 1,969 men and women ages 70 to 89. Having mild cognitive impairment increases the risk of getting Alzheimer's disease over the next few years, but not everyone with mild cognitive impairment gets Alzheimer's.
"We found that the prevalence of mild cognitive impairment was higher in men than in women," says Rosebud Roberts, MD, an associate professor of epidemiology at Mayo Clinic and a study co-investigator.
Men were 1.6 times as likely as women to have the cognitive problems, she says.
Men, Women, and Memory
Previous studies have tried to evaluate which sex has the better memory. But the research looking at sex differences in memory and other cognitive function has yielded mixed results, Roberts tells WebMD.
"Some studies have reported sex differences in mild cognitive impairment," she says, "but the reports have been inconsistent."
Roberts and her colleagues randomly selected residents from Olmsted County, Minn., who were ages 70 to 89 at the start of the study in 2004. The researchers administered cognitive tests, had a physician examine them, and interviewed them.
The researchers also talked to someone who knew each participant well, such as their spouse, to ask about cognitive functioning. Then they classified them as having normal cognition, mild impairment, or dementia.
In all, 16.7% had mild cognitive impairment, Roberts found. Men were 1.6 times more likely than women to have mild cognitive impairment, even after factoring in such variables as age and marital status.
Interpreting the Findings
The new findings are at odds with some studies that have concluded women have more dementia than men, Roberts says. She isn't certain how to interpret the findings thoroughly yet. The findings may suggest that men have a delayed progression from mild impairment to dementia or that women stay in the mild-impairment transition phase more briefly, progressing more quickly than men do to dementia, she says.
The risk factors for mild impairment (such as advancing age) may be different for men, she also speculates, or they may occur at different phases of life for men than for women.
"A person with mild cognitive impairment might have problems with memory, making decisions, or problem solving, or problems with language, like finding a [right] word," Roberts says.
These difficulties are "not severe enough to affect social functioning or work," she says. "It's not something you would notice if you didn't live closely with them."
The study is scientifically sound, according to Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, chairman of the medical and scientific advisory council for the Alzheimer's Association, who reviewed the study for WebMD.
But the increased risk found in the study for men should be put in perspective, he says. For instance, carrying a gene known as the apoE4 allele boosts the risk of getting Alzheimer's, he says. "The gender effects still take a back seat to the genetic effects [of getting dementia] in terms of magnitude," he says.
Both men and women can improve their lifestyles to reduce their risk of dementia, says Gandy. He cites a recent study in which having belly fat as an adult boosted the risk of dementia later.
"As for recommendations [to reduce risk], for now, diet and lifestyle remain the mainstays," he says. The Alzheimer's Association recommends staying active mentally, socially, and physically, as well as adopting a "brain-healthy" diet.