Even though the gap is closing now in many high-income countries, on average, women tend to live longer lives than men do. Despite – or perhaps because of – women's physical longevity, women tend to battle cognitive decline in much greater numbers than men do. In fact, women are more likely to suffer from various types of dementia, including the much-maligned Alzheimer's disease. Now researchers think that they have an answer to the cause of this double-edged sword: stress. Specifically, stress ages women's brains more quickly than it does men.
Scientists, and every-day observers, have noted that some body parts age at different rates than others do. As people become older, some genes become more active while others become less so. These changes in activity can be monitored through a "transcriptome," which collects data on all the RNA – the transcripts that carry DNA's instructions to cells. A multinational team from Australia, China, Germany, and the United States set out to analyze the transcriptomes for 55 different men and women of various ages.
The researchers were fascinated by what they found. According to the abstract of their article published in Aging Cell, "In the superior frontal gyrus (SFG), a part of the prefrontal cortex, we observed manifest differences between the two sexes in the timing of age-related changes, i.e.sexual heterochrony. Intriguingly, age-related expression changes predominantly occurred earlier, or at a faster pace, in females compared to males. These changes included decreased energy production and neural function, and up-regulation of the immune response, all major features of brain aging."
In other words, researchers found that the brains of women aged more quickly than those of men, especially in the prefrontal cortex. Scientists were surprised, expecting the areas of the brain to age more slowly, or even delayed, than those of men.
In the superior frontal gyrus, researchers found 667 genes that were expressed differently by gender during the aging process. Within that number, 98 percent were associated with faster aging in women.
Scientists were not convinced that the reason lay in biological differences. In fact, since only half of women displayed accelerated aging, they were convinced that the difference was environmental. Researchers theorize that stress is the difference-maker, and that it affects women's brains more severely than it does men. While a researcher unaffiliated with the study said that the difference could also be caused by inflammation,
Mehmet Somel and his team have conducted similar research on monkeys that confirms their stress theory.