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May 01, 2019

Brain Health: How Male and Female Brains Age

A new study reveals that when looking specifically at metabolism rates as a metric, women’s brains tend to remain younger than men’s, with females maintaining a higher rate of metabolism throughout their lives. This research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, in February 2019.

Because of this difference in metabolism rates, women maintain a younger brain age when compared to men’s, which means that women may be “better equipped to learn and be creative in later life,” according to NPR.org. Having said that, the article also noted that this is an average or typical experience, and not a universal one for women. In fact, some women experience a dramatic dip in their metabolism right around the time of menopause which can leave them more vulnerable to experiencing Alzheimer’s.

 Details of This Brain Health Study

To complete the study, 205 people, ages 20 to 82, agreed to have their brains scanned. Using positron emission tomography, researchers measured oxygen and glucose usage in various places in each person’s brain, which allowed them to assess that person’s overall metabolism.

The original goal of the study was to use the data to predict the age of each participant based on his or her brain health data.

The results? Glucose and oxygen data were “highly predictive of age,” although this was not universally true for participants. As a next step, the team decided to delve into whether the margin of error was greater for one gender than the other. Through that follow-up, they discovered that women’s brain age, on average, was four years younger than men’s, but they aren’t sure why yet. Possibilities to consider include hormones or genetics.

Coverage of this study by DiscoverMagazine.com notes another way the data was analyzed: On average women’s brains were 3.8 years younger than their actual chronological age; and men, of the same age as the women, had brains that were 2.4 years older than their chronological age.

This article notes that this better brain health may explain why, overall, older women “tend to outperform their male peers on reason, memory, and problem-solving tests.”

Why Glucose Measurements Matter

Our brains need fuel, and sugar is a primary form. As we age, our brains use, or metabolize, sugar differently. Because men’s brains, on average, appear to become more sluggish over time, glucose measurements are what helped to indicate that men’s brains age faster.

Separate Study Phase: Cognitive Decline

As a second branch of the study, researchers looked for links between brain metabolism and cognitive decline, specifically in terms of Alzheimer’s disease. What they discovered indicated that brains showing signs of beta-amyloid plaque (a protein that promotes Alzheimer’s) didn’t actually appear older than those without this plaque.

The presence of this plaque may not have a significant impact on the metabolism of the brain; or, rather, at least not until a certain degree of degeneration takes place. In short, the metabolism ability of a person’s brain may not have much of an effect on whether that person develops Alzheimer’s.

Future research includes studies about whether people with younger brains are less likely to end up with cognitive decline.

 Brain health questions answered

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