And that may protect you from cognitive decline.

By Jessica Migala
February 06, 2019

Confirming what you’ve long suspected (kidding, kidding), your brain is younger than a guy’s brain. About three years younger, to be exact.

That’s according to new research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study looked at brain imaging tests called PET scans in 205 cognitively healthy adult men and women who ranged from age 20 to 82.

The researchers took data from the scans that measured brain metabolism and used an algorithm to determine a person’s “metabolic brain age,” the age of your brain independent of your actual age.

“We find that throughout the adult lifespan the female brain has a persistently lower metabolic brain age—relative to chronological age—compared with the male brain,” the researchers wrote. They ran the algorithm in a couple different ways and found that women’s brains were, on average, 2.4 to 3.8 years younger compared to men’s—and this youthful trend was true across all age ranges.

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Long-running debate about whether or not men's and women’s brains are different aside, these new findings are important because they point to how sex really does matter when it comes to health and medicine. This might seem obvious, but research on diseases and drugs has classically been conducted on men. The better experts can understand these differences, the more tailored disease prevention, management, and treatment can be.

So why the distinction in noggin age? Researchers say that their findings are similar to others that show women’s brains function uniquely compared to men's across the lifespan: They lose less blood to their brains after puberty, and their brains have more of what’s called “glycolysis” as young adults (a process important for learning), among other differences. This may all mean that a woman’s brain is more resilient to aging, which preserves memory. Hormones, including estrogen, may play a youth-preserving role. (It’s also worth noting, as the researchers point out, that this applies to biological sex only—not gender.)

"It's not that men's brains age faster—they start adulthood about three years older than women, and that persists throughout life.…What we don't know is what it means," senior study author Manu Goyal, MD, assistant professor of radiology at Washington University School of Medicine, said in a press release. "I think this could mean that the reason women don't experience as much cognitive decline in later years is because their brains are effectively younger, and we're currently working on a study to confirm that."

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Previous research from the National Institute on Aging has found that women experience less cognitive decline compared to men, in part because of differences in “brain structure and function.” Interestingly enough, though women’s brains may appear younger metabolically, they are hit harder with Alzheimer’s diagnoses. About two-thirds of those with Alzheimer’s disease are women, and in her 60s, a woman is more likely to develop Alzheimer's than breast cancer, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The takeaway? Even though your brain may enjoy a boost just because you’ve been born female doesn’t mean you can ignore your noggin. Practicing healthy brain habits are key: Exercise regularly, eat brain-boosting foods like berries and fish, get enough sleep, and stay social, for starters.

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