Study finds tailoring tests to women improves early diagnosis of memory loss

Women typically have stronger verbal memory skills than men, making it harder to observe early symptoms of dementia in female patients compared to their male counterparts.

Women represent two-thirds of Alzheimer's disease patients, according to the Alzheimer's Association, but when it comes to the diagnosis of early forms of memory loss, their symptoms are less likely to be detected than in male patients.

Researchers at UC San Diego, however, may have found the key to better detecting early memory loss in women.

In a recent study of data from nearly 1,000 Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative patients, researchers found that using tailoring verbal memory tests based on sex for verbal test results may help to diagnose amnestic mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer's.

Women typically have stronger verbal memory skills than men, making it harder to observe early symptoms of dementia in female patients compared to their male counterparts.

"If we adjust our criteria for diagnosis to be sex-specific and to account for that female advantage, like we did in the current study, our results suggest that we would actually improve diagnostic accuracy in both women and men," said Erin Sundermann, an assistant project scientist at UCSD who led the project.

The study, published in the American Academy of Neurology journal this week, used a more narrow set of criteria to evaluate memory loss for women. Using this new method, 10% of the female patients who were deemed cognitively healthy under the old criteria would be diagnosed with aMCI under the new parameters.

About 80% of people diagnosed with aMCI later develop Alzheimer's, according to the National Institute of Health. Symptoms include losing things, forgetting to go to planned events and having more difficulty recalling words than others in the same age range.

Age and education level are often looked at when diagnosing forms of dementia, but the sex of the patient is usually not considered, UCSD reports.

Earlier detection of memory loss is important when it comes to various treatment and slowing the progression of Alzheimer's, Sundermann said.

"The female advantage in verbal memory may actually put women at a disadvantage in terms of detecting Alzheimer's disease in its early disease stages, when our currently available treatments and interventions are likely most effective," she said.

Adjusting memory loss standards for sex can also help to prevent men from being misdiagnosed with a cognitive impairment. The initial study found that with the new sex-specific criteria, 10% of the men previously diagnosed with aMCI were cognitively healthy.

To strengthen the findings, Sundermann added that the study will have to be replicated using different groups of patients, especially those with more ethnic and educational diversity.

"We'd also want to look more at the mechanism underlying women's ability to maintain their memory performance, despite having brain changes," she said.

Co-authors involved with the project included Mark W. Bondi from UCSD and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, as well as others from State University of New York, Mayo Clinic, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study was partially funded by grants from the National Institute of Health and the Department of Defense, a UCSD spokeswoman said.

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