A new study published recently in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that using sex-specific scores on memory tests may change who gets diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by 20 percent, with possibly more women and fewer men being diagnosed.
“Women may be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, but men are typically diagnosed at earlier stages when symptoms are mild,” said Linda Carroll, NBC health contributor. “By adjusting the test scoring to take into account women’s lifelong advantage in verbal memory performance allows researchers to identity more women with amnesiac MCI (aMCI),” according to the report.
Verbal memory refers to the ability to memorize information; to remember words and to recall stories. This ability tends to allow women to score higher on memory tests, but may also compensate over a longer period of time the damage that Alzheimer’s does to the brain, the research indicates.
“The female advantages in verbal memory may actually put women at a disadvantage when it comes to diagnosing Alzheimer’s at an early stage,” said Erin Sundermann, an assistant project scientist at the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. “If we just adjust the criteria to be sex-specific to account for this female advantage, our results suggest it would improve diagnostic accuracy in both women and men.”
With the previous criteria, 10 percent of men would be wrongly identified with MCI and would now be in the normal category. Another 10 percent of women would be added to those with an aMCI diagnosis.
For the study, Sundermann and her colleagues analyzed data from 453 women and 532 men who were participants in the Alzheimer’s Neuroimaging Initiative. Researchers rescored verbal memory tests with the new criteria and then looked at how well the newly scored results matched the physical findings such as biomarkers – measuring levels of abnormal proteins in cerebrospinal fluid – and scans that show how much abnormal proteins might be present in the brain.
The researchers found that the biomarkers and brain scans backed up their new diagnoses. Women who would be considered positive for aMCI had brain scans and biomarkers indicating the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. Men who would be considered normal had biomarkers and brain scans that agreed with that diagnosis.
The new study “is a persuasive first step, showing that correcting for sex differences in verbal memory performance seems to better align with the underlying biology of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Beth Snitz, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and a neuropsychologist at the university’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
Early diagnosis means more time to plan for the future when symptoms are mild and there is still an opportunity to make lifestyle changes such as improving one’s diet and increasing exercise, which may slow the disease’s progression.
For more information, contact Alzheimers Coachella Valley at (760) 776.3100 or www.cvalzheimers.org.