How do men and women differ in the way their brains age?
Psychologists Dr Stian Reimers and Professor Elizabeth Maylor analysed data from the BBC web experiment, Sex ID. Here, Stian Reimers summarises their findings, which were published in the April 2007 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Our findings suggest that as women get older, their brains stay sharper than men's.
We looked at two tasks in Sex ID that favoured men – mentally rotating objects and matching line angles – and two tasks that favoured women – remembering the location of objects and coming up with synonyms for a target word. Decline was measured by the number of correct responses participants gave.
Some of the major findings:
- In all the tasks, older people did worse than younger people, whether male or female. In fact, for many of the tasks, people in their 30s were significantly worse than people in their 20s. This is one of the first times that age-related decline has been shown in adults under 40.
- Men showed a greater decline with age than women did, irrespective of whether a task favoured men or women.
- The only measure that bucked the trend was overall speed, for which women showed more of a decline with age than men did.
- Gay men showed a more female-typical pattern of performance than straight men did, and lesbians showed a more male-typical pattern of performance than straight women did. But gay men's cognitive performance declined with age at the same rate as straight men's, and lesbians' cognitive performance declined at the same rate as straight women's.
These findings are slightly depressing if you're over 30 – it means that you're already past your peak, at least as far as your brain processing goes. But it's not all set in stone. Practice and mental exercise can slow down the rate of decline, whether you're male or female.
Stian Reimers was lead scientific advisor on the Sex ID project. He is a psychology researcher at University College London.
Elizabeth Maylor is Professor of Psychology at the University of Warwick, and specialises in cognitive aging.
Read more aricles about the Sex ID results
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