Women's brains appear 'years younger' than men's

Neon image of a brain lit

Subjects ranged from their 20s to 80s, and across those age spans, women's brains appeared metabolically younger than men's, said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed U.S. journal.

The brain runs on sugar, but how the brain uses sugar changes as people grow and age. But she cautions that even though women's brain metabolism is higher overall, some women's brains experience a dramatic metabolic decline around menopause, leaving them vulnerable to Alzheimer's. They used the women's data as a baseline, and estimated the men's ages based exclusively on their metabolism data. Babies and children use some of their brain fuel in a process called aerobic glycolysis that sustains brain development and maturation. The rest of the sugar is burned to power the day-to-day tasks of thinking and doing.

As adulthood progresses, less and less glucose is pumped through people's brains and by the time we're 60, only a tiny amount makes its way through our minds.

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

The researchers carried out their study by analyzing PET scans of 205 people, between the ages of 20 and 82, with healthy brains in order to use a sample representative of the human adult life span.

The researchers were looking at the flow of oxygen and glucose in their brains to determine the proportion of the glucose that was being allocated to aerobic glycolysis.

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The researchers also performed the analysis in reverse: They trained the algorithm on women's data and applied it to men's.

"It's not that men's brains age faster", said scientist Dr. Manu Goyal from the Washington University School of Medicine.

Women's brains appeared about four years younger, on average.

Then they reversed the process and had the computer estimate a person's age based on brain metabolism data. "It's not that men's brains age faster - they start adulthood about three years older than women, and that persists throughout life", Goyal said. "It is stronger than many sex differences that have been reported, but it's nowhere near as big a difference as some sex differences, such as height".

The relative youthfulness of female brains was detectable even when comparing men and women in their 20s, the researchers said.

Goyal said that the researchers are now working on another study to test whether the findings play a role in why women don't experience as much cognitive decline as men. "Differences in how a female's and a male's brain develops across puberty sets the stage for how they're going to age subsequently". "We're being very cautious in not speculating on what this means in terms of downstream dementia and so forth". However, it's possible that it could explain why "women don't experience as much cognitive decline [as men] in later years, . because their brains are effectively younger".

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