“He never remembers our anniversary,” Felicia says about her husband of 15 years. “It used to really upset me, but now I just drop little hints as the day approaches. It works.”
“I just don’t get his obsession with cars,” Renee says about her boyfriend of two years. “I mean, everything is cars. He has posters of them around his apartment and he’s always looking at ads even though he’s got three that he hasn’t fixed up yet.”
“When he’s playing a video game,” says Brittany, “you might as well just give it up. If I try to ask him a question or get him to do something, it’s like talking to a wall. I mean, I don’t get it. It’s just a game!”
Indeed, there are many things we women don’t get about men (and vice versa). Studies show there’s a reason for that: our brains are just different.
In fact, male and female brains differ in a number of ways, including how they process things, the chemistry of neurochemicals pumping through them, how they’re built, and how much blood flows where.
We can examine these differences to help us understand why men behave as they do, but scientists are particularly interested because gender differences may help us gain a better understanding of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, which affect women considerably more than men.
Indeed, almost two-thirds of American seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. At age 65, women have a more than one in six chance of developing the disease, compared with a one in 11 chance for men. Women are also known to decline much more quickly than men once they have the disease.
Researchers used to believe that the main reason for this difference was that women lived longer, but recent research on brain differences are changing that belief.
“Considerably more women develop dementia in the Western world than men,” said Dr. Doug Brown, Director of Research at the Alzheimer’s Society, “and this isn’t just because they live longer.”
So what is driving the difference?
Women and Men Have Different Brains
We already know about a number of key differences between the genders when it comes to the brain. First, there are behavioral differences. Women, on average, excel in verbal ability, reading comprehension, writing ability, fine-motor coordination, and perceptual speed, and they’re also better at remembering things from long ago.
Men, on average, have superior visuospatial skills, in that they can “see” two- or three-dimensional shapes, correctly determine angles from the horizontal, and track moving objects. (Why you’re likely to give up the wheel to your guy when it comes time to parallel park.)
These differences are seen early on, usually in infants. Little girls respond more readily to faces and start talking earlier, and little boys react earlier to perceptual discrepancies that they can see.
The behavioral differences extend to the unhealthy side of our mental and emotional health, too. Women are twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, whereas men are more likely to become alcohol or drug-dependent, and 40 percent more likely to develop schizophrenia.
Next, there are the physical differences. Men’s brains, on average, are bigger than women’s, but a woman’s hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memorization, is larger than a man’s. The amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, is bigger in men, too, and works differently than it does in women. After watching an emotionally powerful film, women showed greater activity in the left amygdala (there are two), while men showed more in the right.
There’s more communication between the left and right sides of women’s brains, whereas men have more localized brain activity. In fact, women have verbal centers on both sides, while men tend to have them only in the left. (Which could explain why your guy cringes when you say, “We have to talk.”)
Both genders process the same chemicals, like serotonin, but to different degrees. Ratios of gray and white matter differ, with men having more gray matter—involved in information- and action-processing—and women having more white matter, which is responsible for communication between different areas of the brain. There are differences in blood flow, too.
Of course, there are many things between the genders that are similar as well, and there are a lot of variations between individuals. We know that some women excel spatially and some men are great communicators, and we can find exceptions to every rule.
But when looking at the research as a whole, we find these basic differences that exist. Learning more about them could help women fare better when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders like depression and anxiety.
Gender Differences May be Tied to Disease Risk
As mentioned, women are more at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, as well as depression and anxiety. Men, on the other hand, are more at risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance abuse, and antisocial disorders.
New evidence suggests that our brain differences may be at least partially to blame for these risks. In an August 2017 study, for example, researchers reported that significant gender-related brain differences that could impact future Alzheimer’s treatments.
Using brain imaging data from 46,034 men and women, they found that women’s brains were significantly more active (with higher blood flow) in many more areas than men’s brains, especially in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved with focus and impulse control, and the emotional areas involved with mood and anxiety. The visual and coordination centers, on the other hand, were more active in men.
“The quantifiable differences we identified between men and women are important for understanding gender-based risk for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease,” said lead author Daniel G. Amen, M.D. “Using functional imaging tools…are essential to developing precision medicine brain treatments in the future.”
Researchers also theorized that the differences in blood flow could explain why women tend to be stronger in empathy and intuition, as well as self-control, and why they may be more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
A couple years ago, researchers reported that women’s brains are more vulnerable to the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s than men’s. They typically decline faster after diagnosis, losing their memory and cognitive function twice as quickly.
“Women are disproportionally affected by Alzheimer’s,” said Maria Carrillo, chief scientific officer as the Alzheimer’s Association, “and there is an urgent need to understand if differences in brain structure, disease progression, and biological characteristics contribute to higher prevalence and rates of cognitive decline.”
Other researchers have suggested that women and men have very different experiences with Alzheimer’s, and that understanding these differences should be a high priority for future research.
How Women Can Protect Their Brains
How women’s brains work is only one area of Alzheimer’s research. Scientists are also looking at genetic differences and hormonal differences, and have found some evidence that these factors, too, may affect risk for and progression of the disease.
It is clear, however, from decades of research, that women’s brains differ from men’s. Women can use that knowledge to not only increase understanding in their relationships with men, but to adopt lifestyle habits that will help protect their brains.
First, we can take to heart the recommendations to eat well, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and take good care of our hearts, as heart health is closely related to brain health. We can continue to learn new things and challenge our cognitive abilities as we age, and stay connected socially to those that matter to us while continuing to make new friends whenever possible.
But we can go beyond these basic (and important) steps to take stock of our own mental health. Women who are suffering from depression or anxiety may want to seek help sooner than later, to avoid a downward spiral that may have long-term consequences. They can track their health after menopause to reduce risk. (While hormone-replacement therapy within five years of menopause reduces risk of Alzheimer’s disease, using it later in life increases risk, according to some studies.)
In the end, we may not be able to control whether or not our brains decline with age, but we don’t have to resign ourselves to fate. We can use our highly connected and intuitively powerful brains to raise the odds that we’ll continue to be able to outsmart the men in our lives.