Sex Differences in Cognition in Alzheimer's Disease
Inspection of the published research shows that sex differences in cognition in the general population have been widely cited with the direction of the advantage depending on the domain being examined. The most prevalent claims are that men are better than women at visuospatial and mathematical tasks whereas women have superior verbal skills and perform better than men on tasks assessing episodic memory. There is also some evidence that women are more accurate than men at identifying facial expressions of emotion. A more in-depth examination of the literature, however, reveals that evidence of such differences is not as conclusive as would at first appear. Not only is the direction and magnitude of sex differences dependent on the cognitive domain but also on the individual tasks. Some visuospatial tasks show no difference (e.g. figure copying) whist men have been shown to be better than women at confrontation naming (a verbal task). Alzheimer’s disease is a heterogeneous illness that affects the elderly. It manifests with deficits in cognitive abilities and behavioural difficulties. It has been suggested that some of the behavioural issues may arise from difficulties with recognising facial emotion expressions. There have been claims that AD affects men and women differently: women have been reported as being more likely to develop AD and showing a greater dementia severity than men with equivalent neuropathology. Despite this, research into sex differences in cognition in AD is scarce, and conflicting. This research was concerned with the effect of sex on the cognitive abilities of AD patients. The relative performance of men and women with AD was compared to that of elderly controls. The study focused on the verbal, visuospatial and facial emotion recognition domains. Data was collected and analysed from 70 AD patients (33 male, 37 female), 62 elderly controls (31 male, 31 female) and 80 young adults (40 male, 40 female). Results showed those with AD demonstrate cognitive deficits compared to elderly controls in verbal and visuospatial tasks but not in the recognition of facial emotions. There were no significant sex differences in either the young adults or the healthy elderly controls but sex differences favouring men emerged in the AD group for figure copying and recall and for confrontation naming. Given that elderly men and women perform equivalently for these tasks, this represents a deterioration in women’s cognitive abilities, relative to men’s. Further evidence of such an adverse effect of AD was apparent in other tasks, too: for most verbal and visuospatial tasks, either an effect favouring women in the elderly is reversed or a male advantage increases in magnitude. There is no evidence of sex differences in facial emotion recognition for any group. This suggests that the lack of published findings reporting on sex differences in this domain is due to the difficulty in getting null findings accepted for publication. The scarcity of research examining sex differences in other domains is also likely to be due to this bias.