The difference exists even though women and men have similar amounts of shrinkage in brain areas that show the earliest evidence of Alzheimer's disease, according to the study involving hundreds of people.
"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," study author Erin Sundermann said in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology. Sundermann is a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
"Because verbal memory tests are used to diagnose people with Alzheimer's disease and its precursor, mild cognitive impairment, these tests may fail to detect mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease in women until they are further along in the disease," she explained.
If the results are confirmed, doctors may need to adjust memory tests to make a better diagnosis, Sundermann said.
The findings were published online March 16 in the journal Neurology.
In an accompanying editorial, Mary Sano, associate dean for clinical research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, wrote: "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."
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on Alzheimer's disease.
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