updated 9/7/2010 10:51:16 AM ET 2010-09-07T14:51:16

Men are more susceptible than women to memory problems in old age, according to a new study.

Mild cognitive impairment, a condition in which people have problems with memory or thinking beyond that explained by normal aging, can lead to Alzheimer's disease. The new research, published Sept. 7 in the journal Neurology, found that mild cognitive impairment is 1.5 times more common in men than women.

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"This is the first study conducted among community-dwelling persons to find a higher prevalence of MCI in men," said study researcher Ronald Petersen, the director of Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minn. "If these results are confirmed in other studies, it may suggest that factors related to gender play a role in the disease. For example, men may experience cognitive decline earlier in life but more gradually, whereas women may transition from normal memory directly to dementia at a later age but more quickly."

Another recent study revealed that reading and other brain exercises could delay cognitive decline, but once the outward signs of dementia hit, it seems to progress faster than if it hadn't been postponed.

In the new study, Peterson and his colleagues interviewed 2,050 people ages 70 to 89 about their memory and their medical history. They also tested the participants on their memory and thinking skills.

Nearly 14 percent of those tested had mild cognitive impairment. Another 10 percent had dementia, a loss of cognitive function most often caused by Alzheimer's disease. When split up by gender, 19 percent of men had mild cognitive impairment compared with 14 percent of women.

People in the study with low education levels and those who were never married had higher rates of mild cognitive impairment than those who were married or highly educated.

Besides uncovering a gender disparity in memory, Petersen said, the finding that almost a quarter of elderly people have memory problems or dementia highlights the need for new treatments.

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