Our ongoing series, The Wonder of You, examines the many ways that women’s bodies can accomplish some truly amazing things. This month, we examine the science of memory, why women tend to have better memory than men, and explore ways to protect your brain health as you age. As June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, there’s no better time to learn about memory and how to maintain your cognitive health!
Memory isn’t simply about rote memorization, like memorizing facts for a test. Rather, memory is about active construction, wherein we create connections between two seemingly unrelated objects. Just like we train different parts of our body through exercise, we can train our brains to remember important events by using verbal and visual cues to create ties within our mind. These memories are then stored as electrical and chemical signals in the brain, and can be recalled when needed.
Ask a woman how she met her significant other, and she’ll likely tell you what she was wearing, what the weather was like that day, what music was playing, and what emotions she felt. This type of detailed storytelling is a unique trait among women, and one that benefits our ability to recall memories.
According to a study published in the journal Child Development, the strength of our memory is built on a learned process of how we’re taught to tell stories during our formative years. From a young age, girls are trained to share emotion and descriptive details when recalling an event. These little details can serve as “retrieval clues” that help us to remember events of the past.
A similar study of college undergrads published in the journal Memory, revealed women remembered events more accurately after a week than men, because of the same encoding techniques.
Even later in life, our memory reigns supreme. In a study published in the journal Menopause, women aged 45-55 years performed better in all memory measures including: episodic memory (a form of long-term memory involving recollection of specific events), executive function, semantic processing (recall of words, concepts, numbers), and associative memory (the ability to make connections between unrelated items, like remembering the name of person we just met).
It’s clear, there is a difference when it comes to gender and memory though science is still exploring what influence nature versus nurture may have.
Unfortunately, memory loss is still a common part of aging. Especially after menopause, women may experience “brain fog” and may have difficulty remembering things. While research is ongoing, several studies point to a connection between the drop in estrogen and a decline in mental cognition after menopause.
Women are also more at-risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions over time. By age 65, a woman has a 1 in 5 risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Researchers are still studying the exact cause behind Alzheimer’s and why women are more susceptible. Age is the number one risk factor for Alzheimer’s, so the fact that women are living longer than men may have something to do with it. Others believe the connection could be a genetic variant known as ApoE4.
Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take now to protect your cognitive health:
Overall, it seems women have a leg-up when it comes to memory recall. While some level of memory loss is normal as we age, it’s important to discuss any significant changes with your provider. All in all, our brain is arguably one of the most complex organs in our body, but caring for it doesn’t have to be!