20 June 2001

Elderly Women Smarter Than Men

by Kate Melville

Elderly women have a better mental function than men despite their lower level of formal education, conclude Dutch researchers in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. These findings challenge the view that a limited formal education is associated with lower mental ability and suggest that biological differences between men and women may be an alternative explanation.

A sample of 599 Dutch men and women aged 85 years completed the mini mental state examination to determine mental impairment. In those who scored higher than 18 points, mental speed and memory were assessed using four neuropsychological tests. Level of formal education was also recorded.

The proportion of women with limited formal education was significantly higher than that of men, but women had better scores for mental speed and memory than men. Good mental speed was found in 33% of the women and 28% of the men. Forty one per cent of the women and 29% of the men had a good memory.

The authors conclude that limited formal education alone cannot explain the differences in mental function in men and women. They suggest that biological differences - such as the relative absence of cardiovascular disease in elderly women compared with men of the same age - could account for these sex differences in mental decline.