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Women With Alzheimer's Keep Verbal Memory Longer Than Men

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In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease (AD), women may remember words more than men. This may delay diagnosis and treatment in women despite the same levels of shrinkage in brain areas linked to the debilitating disease, a new study suggests.

These areas show the earliest evidence of the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the 6th leading cause of death among Americans and an estimated two-thirds of people diagnosed with AD are women.

"One way to interpret the results is that because women have better verbal memory skills than men throughout life, women have a buffer of protection against loss of verbal memory before the effects of Alzheimer's disease kick in," said Dr. Erin E. Sundermann from Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In a new study published in the journal Neurology of the American Academy of Neurology, researchers recruited the participants who were part of the Alzheimer's disease Neuroimaging Initiative. A total of 235 people have AD, 694 have mild cognitive impairment including memory problems and 379 people without any thinking or memory problems.

The team of researchers measured both verbal memory and the size of the hippocampal area of the brain, the part responsible for verbal memory and is affected by the disease. They compared these two factors and found that women performed better than men on the tests.

This showed that both women and men had minimal to moderate shrinkage of the hippocampus. In the later stage of the disease, however, when there is high level of shrinkage, there was no difference in the scores of all participants, regardless of gender.

Verbal memory tests are used to diagnose patients with AD. These tests might fail in detecting mild cognitive impairment in women. When proper diagnosis is delayed, treatment will not be initiated early on in the disease.

The study sheds light on the need for individualized tests or a separate memory test for women suspected to have AD. This will allow for early diagnosis and treatment among women, who are more affected by the disease. The study also showed that women showed greater evidence of the shrinkage of hippocampus.

"At a public policy level, the potential health care cost for under-detection or delayed diagnosis of women with Alzheimer's disease or its early stages is staggering and should motivate funding in this area," said Dr. Mary Sano, a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

Photo: Akuppa John Wigham | Flickr 

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