NEWS Mental Health News Women May Have Faster Cognitive Decline in Old Age, Study Suggests By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard LinkedIn Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Learn about our editorial process Updated on March 22, 2021 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Daniella Amato Fact checked by Daniella Amato Daniella Amato is a biomedical scientist and fact-checker with expertise in pharmaceuticals and clinical research. Learn about our editorial process Share Tweet Email Print Key Takeaways In a recent study, women showed faster declines in certain forms of cognitive function, but not memory.Research also indicated that women tended to have higher baseline performance in several brain functions than men before old age.Getting a cognitive screening even if you don’t have symptoms could be a good way to establish a baseline as you age. Previous studies have noted that dementia risks are higher for women, and new research published in JAMA Network Open suggests one factor may be faster cognitive decline in certain functions compared to men. Researchers looked at data from five studies representing nearly 50 years and over 25,000 participants and compared memory, executive function such as focus and following directions, and global cognition — which involves reasoning, acquiring new knowledge, and using information. They found that women tended to have a higher baseline performance than men in all cognitive areas. However, they also showed faster declines in global cognition and executive function as they aged, even though decline in memory was about the same. The results were independent of education, race, age, and cardiovascular risk factors, says study co-author Deborah Levine, M.D., M.P.H. of the Cognitive health Services Research Program at the University of Michigan, and are consistent with previous research that suggests women may be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment earlier than men. What was surprising, he adds, is the similar losses in memory. “The finding was notable because memory decline is the clinical hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease, a common cause of dementia, and some studies suggest women have a higher incidence of the condition,” she says. Factors for Decline Although the research review didn’t pinpoint potential causes for faster cognitive decline for women as they age, past research has indicated that factors might include: Longer life than men, so more time to show cognitive effectsHormone changes from menopauseGeneticsLifestyle factors like lower rates of exerciseLower gray matter volume Women are also more prone to small vessel disease, says Levine, a condition in which the smaller arteries in the heart and brain don’t dilate properly. Deborah Levine, MD, MPH The finding was notable because memory decline is the clinical hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease...and some studies suggest women have a higher incidence of the condition. — Deborah Levine, MD, MPH In the brain, this is known as cerebral small vessel disease and is considered a very common neurological disease in older people, according to commentary in Stroke and Vascular Neurology. The issue causes up to 45 percent of the cases of dementia worldwide, and about 20 percent of all strokes. Staying in School Helps Maintain Brain Function Through Adulthood, Study Shows Strategies for Prevention Although there is no single, proven way to prevent all forms of dementia, there are some actions both men and women can take that might be helpful. One of the most notable is physical activity, which has been shown to reduce inflammation overall, improve heart and brain function, and improve sleep. All of these have been connected to better cognitive health, says Scott Kaiser, M.D., geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center. Other strategies that may be protective are: Reducing alcohol consumptionQuitting smokingEating a healthy dietMaintaining social connectionsLearning new skills or mental challenges Also vital is addressing other health problems, Kaiser adds. For example, heart issues and dementia are often connected because lack of proper blood flow to the brain can speed cognitive decline. Young African Americans With Poor Heart Health At Risk of Alzheimer's Recognize Early Signs Often, memory loss is highlighted with dementia, and for good reason since it’s one of the key symptoms of the condition. But it’s certainly not the only one. As the recent study showed, declines in other areas, such as organizational skills and following directions, could also start declining in later years. Kaiser says other signs worth considering include: Mobility issuesConfusionSignificant emotional changesParanoiaLanguage difficultyInability to recognize sarcasm That last one tends to be surprising, says Kaiser, but it’s related to being unable to pick up on facial or vocal cues, which could indicate communication problems. Jasmeer Chhatwal, MD If your symptoms are minor, a screening will at least give you a baseline you can compare to later screens if those symptoms should worsen. — Jasmeer Chhatwal, MD Although these might be mild, it’s helpful to get a cognitive screening, according to Jasmeer Chhatwal, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Even if you have no genetic factors or think your condition isn't that disruptive, it's useful to know where you stand in terms of cognitive function, he suggests. "If your symptoms are minor, a screening will at least give you a baseline you can compare to later screens if those symptoms should worsen," he says. "If nothing else, this can be a wake-up call to look at your lifestyle habits and see if anything needs improvement." What This Means For You Because women may be more prone to certain types of cognitive decline faster than men, it's important to implement brain health strategies as you age, and to stay on top of cognitive screenings with your healthcare provider. Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual People May Face Higher Dementia Risk Later in Life 3 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Levine DA, Gross AL, Briceño EM, et al. Sex Differences in Cognitive Decline Among US Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(2):e210169. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.0169 Sofi F, Valecchi D, Bacci D, et al. Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: a meta-analysis of prospective studies: Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline. Journal of Internal Medicine. 2011;269(1):107-117. Shi Y, Wardlaw JM Update on cerebral small vessel disease: a dynamic whole-brain disease. Stroke and Vascular Neurology 2016;1:doi: 10.1136/svn-2016-000035 By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist Online Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.