Why women's grey matter ages better than men's

Grant Boone
February 6, 2019

The stunning find may explain why girls stay sharper as they get older than boys, scientists said. Goyal and colleagues have found that women's brains appear to be three years younger than men's of the same age.

"It's not that men's brains age faster - they start adulthood about three years older than women, and that persists throughout life", said Goyal, who is also an assistant professor of neurology and of neuroscience.

The study was recently posted in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

Goyal and his team, for this study looked at Positron Emission Tomography scans (PET scans) or brain scans of 205 people aged between 20 and 82 years (121 women and 84 men). But just how it metabolises glucose can reveal a lot about the brain's metabolic age.

And while metabolic brain age might be useful to predict the risk of cognitive decline or identify factors that potentially could improve or worsen the trajectory of brain aging, the findings need to be validated in other cohorts, the researchers added.

Goyal and his co-authors explained that their findings are consistent with evidence from previous studies indicating that, compared with the male brain, the female brain displays less cerebral blood flow loss after puberty, more brain glycolysis (or breaking down of glucose) in young adulthood and decreased loss of certain types of cerebral gene expression over time.

Then, the researchers flipped their analysis: they trained the algorithm on women's data, and told it to calculate the brain ages for men.

Researchers then tried using a female benchmark set with women's ages and brain metabolism.

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A study basing age on metabolism rather than birth date found an average 3.8 year difference between the two. The brain's metabolism slows as people grow older, with pensioners using less glucose for brain development and more to complete everyday tasks.

The researchers noted that the relative "metabolic youth" of women's brains also parallels the slightly longer life span of women, compared with men.

Time wears differently on women's and men's brains. Pondering on the reasons why, Goyal said, "It makes us wonder, are hormones involved in brain metabolism and how it ages?"

The study was conducted by researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in the United States and funded by grants from the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation, Charles F. and Joanne Knight, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience, and the National Institutes of Health. Goyal says it's not clear why women's brains remain youthful.

Prior work has identified many sex differences in the brain, including during brain aging and in neurodegenerative diseases. Similarly, the algorithm judged men's brains to be an average 2.4 years older than their actual age. But Roberta Diaz Brinton, who studies brain aging at the University of Arizona, has a more optimistic take on the results.

"What we don't know is what it means", the lead author said.

At any age, you can help protect your health by having a balanced diet, taking regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight, not smoking and drinking in moderation.

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