Press Releases

Women’s memory better than men’s at age 50

12 March 2010

A study involving more than 9,600 middle-aged men and women in England, Scotland and Wales has found that women outscored men in two verbal memory tests. Participants in the first test listened to 10 common words being read out and were then given two minutes to recall as many as possible. The second test required them to list the same 10 words about five minutes later.

It is well known that girls are no longer the weaker sex academically – if they ever were. They have overtaken boys at school and are more likely to go on to university and gain a degree. But new research from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies suggests that female superiority does not end there. At age 50 a woman’s memory is better than a man’s, it seems.

A study involving more than 9,600 middle-aged men and women in England, Scotland and Wales has found that women outscored men in two verbal memory tests. Participants in the first test listened to 10 common words being read out and were then given two minutes to recall as many as possible. The second test required them to list the same 10 words about five minutes later.

Women scored almost 5 per cent more than men, on average, in the first test and nearly 8 per cent more in the second one. They were also quicker than men in a third test that required them to cross out as many “Ps” and “Ws” as possible in a page filled with rows of random letters. However, women also made more mistakes than men.

In a fourth test, which involved naming as many animals as they could in a minute, men and women had identical scores. Each could name 22 animals, on average.

The participants were all members of the National Child Development Study (NCDS) who have been tracked by researchers since their birth in 1958. As they were also assessed at age 16 the latest tests will help researchers to estimate the impact that exercise, diet, smoking, alcohol and depression have had on their mental abilities.

Initial analyses of the test results have shown that those who exercised at least once a month performed better on all tests, on average, than those who did not. Non-smokers, including ex-smokers, also outscored smokers in the first of the ‘word recall’ tests, even after social background was taken into consideration.

“Understanding the impact of behaviours such as exercise and smoking on cognitive function is vital if rates of cognitive decline in the general population are to be reduced in the future,” say the authors of the study, Matthew Brown and Brian Dodgeon. Such tests, which NCDS members will take at intervals over the coming years, will also enable researchers to measure changes in cognitive ability that occur with ageing.

“Although measuring gender differences was not the central purpose of these tests the differences between men and women were interesting,” the researchers add. “Men performed significantly more poorly in the verbal memory tests: particularly on the delayed memory test.

“Previous research has produced similar results but this is the first time that such a large number of middle-aged men and women of the same age have taken memory tests of this kind in the UK.”

The full CLS working paper can be downloaded via this hyperlink:

Matthew Brown and Brian Dodgeon (2010) “NCDS Cognitive Assessments at Age 50: Initial Results.  CLS Working Paper 2010/1.  London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies

Notes:

1. While women did relatively well on average in the NCDS assessments, a University of California study published last year reported that they may also suffer from memory problems during their 40s and early 50s.The US study, published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that the onset of the menopause generally affected women’s verbal memory, and the speed at which they processed information. However, women's learning ability recovered to pre-menopausal levels after the menopause. The University of California study involved 2,362 women aged 42 to 52. “Effects of the menopause transition and hormone use on cognitive performance in midlife women” was published in the May 26, 2009 issue of Neurology.

2. In total, 9,790 NCDS members were interviewed at age 50, of whom 9,649 (99%) agreed to participate in the cognitive assessments. Interviews and assessments were conducted between August 2008 and May 2009 by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) on behalf of CLS

3. Word list recall is a test of verbal learning and memory where participants are required to learn a list of 10 common words.  The CAPI (Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing) program randomly selects one of four lists of words which are presented to the respondent by the computer using a recorded voice. In cases where the computer voice is not audible the list is read aloud by the interviewer, who is asked to imitate the pace and clarity of the recorded voice, reading the words at approximately two-second intervals. Once the list has been read out, participants have up to two minutes to recall as many as they can. The word list allocated to each participant was recorded to ensure that a different list will be used in future.

4. Animal naming is a test of verbal fluency which measures how quickly participants can think of words from a particular category. The participant is asked to name as many different animals as possible within one minute. Repetitions, named animals (e.g. Bambi) and redundancies (e.g. white cow, brown cow) are excluded from the total score.  The present version of this widely used test was taken from the   cognitive assessment section of the Cambridge Mental Disorders of the Elderly Examination.