Memory loss and cognitive impairment can affect anyone, young or old, but are the warning signs of dementia different for men and women?

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the term ‘dementia’ relates to a set of symptoms that, over time, includes difficulties with memory, problem-solving, language and behaviour. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.

Most commonly found in people over 65, dementia tends to get worse with age. It’s important to be able to spot the warning signs of dementia so you can get advice and treatment, and start planning for the future.

The symptoms depend on the type of dementia, so it’s important to get a thorough diagnosis.

The Alzheimer’s Society says that common warning signs of dementia include:

  • Forgetfulness and recent memory loss
  • Problems with language and verbal memory
  • Confusion, especially over times or places
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Poor concentration and organisation
  • Mood swings and personality changes
  • Impaired visual judgement.

It’s normal to experience some of these symptoms, particularly as you get older. Forgetting a friend’s address, becoming less able to concentrate for long periods, or struggling to remember the name of an actor in a film, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got dementia.

But if you find that you, or someone you know, experiences one or more of these symptoms with increasing frequency, it might be worth seeing a GP.

Are the warning signs of dementia different for men and women?

Research has shown that twice as many women as men worldwide are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia, primarily related to the fact that women generally live longer than men.

However, researchers are also investigating the role played by the oestrogen hormone in dementia in women, which may protect the female brain from some of the changes in brain chemicals and structure that happen with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Levels of oestrogen drop significantly after the menopause, at which point its protective effect is lost.

Oestrogen has also been shown to have a significant effect on cognitive function, most notably on verbal memory. These studies reveal that women tend to be better at remembering words than men, and have stronger verbal ability.

Some studies have even suggested that HRT (hormone replacement therapy, in which medication is taken to replace the oestrogen no longer produced naturally) decreases the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in women.

They also report that women who are suffering from Alzheimer’s, and have been taking HRT, have milder symptoms than those who haven’t been taking it.

However, according to the Alzheimer’s Society: “Until there is clearer evidence, HRT is not recommended as a way to help people reduce their risk of dementia” and research in this area remains ongoing.

Does any of this mean that the warning signs of Alzheimer’s dementia are different for women and men? Well, maybe.

One of the tests frequently used to diagnose early onset Alzheimer’s dementia is the verbal memory test. The patient might be asked to learn a list of words, recall a name and address, or retell a story they’ve recently heard.

This emphasis on verbal memory means that some men may appear to be showing signs of dementia, because their language skills and verbal memory are not as good as a woman’s. A full person-centered examination with a specialist or memory clinic is essential to avoid misdiagnosis.

Conversely, some women may be incorrectly diagnosed as not having dementia because of their brain’s ability to process verbal memory tests, when there may in fact be other issues with cognitive functioning which are not picked up.

Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Society has raised further concerns that some men are being incorrectly diagnosed with forms of dementia other than Alzheimer’s. This could also explain why there appears to be such an imbalance in the numbers of men and women diagnosed with the condition.

What signs should you look for?

Memory: Women seem to struggle with memory sooner than men. A change in a woman’s memory function might therefore be a cause for concern. And if a male friend or relative is not experiencing any memory impairment, it does not necessarily mean there is nothing to worry about. It’s important to look out for other signs and symptoms.

Mobility: Even if a man is not showing signs of memory loss or other cognitive impairment, problems with movement, like a new tendency to stumble or fall, or to move around more slowly, may be an early sign of dementia. Women tend to have problems with mobility and movement later in the progression of a dementia.

Speech and language: While men may not show signs of forgetting words and phrases, they may present more noticeable issues with speech and communication than a woman.

Depression: Research suggests that a man with depression is more likely than a woman to develop dementia. So, if a male loved one has a history of depressive illnesses, and there are other dementia warning signs, the risks that he is in the early stages of dementia are higher.

Mood swings: Many men find it hard to communicate their feelings and fears. This frustration can manifest itself in anger and aggression. If you witness unusual mood swings and angry outbursts in a male friend or relative, these could be warning signs of an internal battle with the early signs of dementia.

What next?

If you are worried about memory loss affecting yourself or a family member, a dementia assessment can provide comfort and peace of mind. Call us on 0330 124 1970 to arrange a free, no-obligation, Mini-ACE cognitive test (worth £100).

Alternatively, please get in touch with the team at MemoryClinix.

Written By Al Brunker, November 2021.

Approved by Dr Darren Cotterrel MBBCh, MRCPsych, MSc, FRCPS