Cognitive Impairment Risk Factors for Men and Women

Sex Matters for Cognitive Impairment Risk

Brain. Photo: Michael Matisse / Getty Images

Cognitive impairment is the loss of brain function. As we age, there is usually some degree of cognitive impairment (often seen as memory loss). Turns out that you can change certain risk factors to reduce your risk of cognitive impairment. Interestingly, these risk factors are not the same for men and women.

Sex Matters for Cognitive Impairment Risk

Gender makes a difference in your risk of developing cognitive impairment (loss of brain function often associated with aging).

More specifically, men and women have different risk factors for age-related cognitive impairment. A study in France looked at almost 7,000 people aged 65 and older. At the beginning of the study none had dementia, though 42% had mild cognitive impairment. Over a four-year period, 6.5% of those with mild cognitive impairment developed dementia while 37% of those with mild cognitive impairment returned to normal. This "return to normal" surprised me. I viewed cognitive impairment as a progressive issues that just worsened with time, but this study showed that people can drift in and out of a state of mild cognitive impairment. That is good news and implies that changing the risk factors below can do wonders for healthy brain aging. What was interesting is that while men and women developed cognitive impairment at similar rates, the men and women who developed it differed in terms of risk factors.

Cognitive Impairment Risk Factors for Women

In the study, women who had mild cognitive impairment were likely to have poorer overall health and be disabled. Women developing mild cognitive impairment were also more likely to have insomnia and lacked a strong social network (fewer friends and family members).

If a woman was dependent on others for daily tasks, her risk of developing dementia was 3.5 times greater than those who were independent. Depression also impacted women more than men. Women suffering from depression were twice as likely to progress from cognitive impairment to dementia.

Cognitive Impairment Risk Factors for Men

The men in the study with mild cognitive impairment were more likely to be overweight, have a diagnosis of diabetes and/or have had a stroke. The stroke was the most significant risk factor in men, increasing the chances of dementia by a factor of 3. Factors like independence, social network and depression did not seem to be risk factors for men.

Risk Factors for Men and Women

People in the study who were depressed or taking anticholinergic drugs were more likely to move from mild cognitive impairment to dementia. A genetic factor (a gene called ApoE) also occurred in more of the people who progressed to dementia.

Why Are Cognitive Risk Factors Different for Men and Women?

Good question, but the study can't really answer that one.

What I find interesting is that the risk factors for women seem more relationship focused. They include the number of close friends and family members and also whether or not the woman is a "burden" on others. For men, the risk factors seem linked much more to physical health (diabetes, stroke, weight). These differences are intriguing, and we could have lots of fun playing "armchair epidemiologist" by creating theories for why the cognitive risk factors are different for men and women. But the short answer is that we just don't know (yet).

Can Cognitive Impairment Be Prevented?

While no one really knows how to prevent age-related cognitive impairment, here are a few things to try that will improve your overall health and just might improve your brain health too:

Back to Top Aging Challenges


S Artero1,2, M-L Ancelin1,2, F Portet1,2, A Dupuy1,2, C Berr1,2, J-F Dartigues3,4, C Tzourio5,6, O Rouaud5,6, M Poncet7, F Pasquier8,9, S Auriacombe3,4, J Touchon1,2, K Ritchie1,2. Risk profiles for mild cognitive impairment and progression to dementia are gender specific. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 2008;79:979-984.

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