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Age-related cognitive decline: Women are more resilient than men

Previous research has shown that aging affects cognitive ability, and that subtle sex differences in cognition exist across the lifespan. A recent observational study by Dr. Anna C. McCarrey and colleagues in NIA’s Intramural Research Program showed that cognitive ability in some, but not all, domains declines at a steeper rate for men than for women.

NIA researchers followed participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging up to nine years on average. Participants ranged in age from 50 to 96, and were free of cognitive impairment throughout the course of the study. Participants periodically took memory and other cognitive tests that assessed mental status, visuospatial ability, verbal learning and memory, perceptuomotor speed and integration, and other cognitive skills.

Initially, men outperformed women on the two tests of visuospatial ability, and women did better than men on several other cognitive tests. Men showed overall steeper rates of cognitive decline in areas of mental status, perceptuomotor speed and integration, and visuospatial ability. None of the measures showed significantly steeper declines for women. This suggests that women have a greater resilience to age-related cognitive decline than do men.

The researchers note that societal changes may contribute to these sex differences as they have resulted in greater improvements in cognitive stimulation, financial prosperity, and health for women. In addition, sex differences in cognitive aging may be affected by differences in brain structure and function, which tend to show more favorable outcomes for women at advanced ages. Further research is needed to link longitudinal brain changes to cognition in older men and women.

Reference: Sex Differences in Cognitive Trajectories in Clinically Normal Older Adults. Anna C. McCarrey, Yang An, Melissa H. Kitner-Triolo, Luigi Ferrucci, and Susan M. Resnick. Psychology and Aging. 2016 Apr 13; 31(2):166-175. doi: 10.1037/pag0000070.