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

The researchers analyzed brain scans of more than 200 adults, specifically looking at a measure of the brain's metabolism that's known to change with age.

Over time, the brain changes how it uses glucose, or sugar, as a process called aerobic glycolysis drops to low levels by the time we reach around the age of 60.

"We're just starting to understand how various sex-related factors might affect the trajectory of brain ageing and how that might influence the vulnerability of the brain to neurodegenerative diseases", said neuroscientist Manu Goyal of the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Using this as a baseline, the researchers asked the algorithm to estimate the ages of the women based exclusively on their brain metabolism data.

As we get older, our brains burn less glucose to power brain development and more to complete everyday tasks and mental challenges. This in turn may help explain why women tend to experience less of a decline in thinking abilities as they age, the researchers wrote in the study, published today (Feb. 4) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pointing to existing research, the team surmised that women's brains could be free from neurocongitive decline for longer for a number of reasons.

They then fed a machine-learning algorithm the male sample data to establish a relationship between age and brain metabolism. They used the women's data as a baseline, and estimated the men's ages based exclusively on their metabolism data.

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In the next stage of their research, the team will be trying to determine if cognitive problems occur less frequently in people with brains that seem younger.

Goyal said that while the differences between the brain age of men and women was "significant", it was "nowhere near as big a difference as some sex differences, such as height".

Women's brains are about 3.8 years younger than their chronological ages, according to the study. The relative sprightliness was detectable even among the youngest subjects, who were in their twenties.

Their brains appear nearly four years younger than men's on average, a study suggests.

One theory is that hormones might begin shaping brain metabolism at a young age, setting females on a pattern that is more youthful throughout their lives, compared to men.

A group of scientists believe the brain metabolisms of women take longer to slow than men's, which could explain why they tend to stave off cognitive decline for longer.

More work is underway to confirm and better understand the implications of the research.

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