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Ever since the publication of Men are from Mars and Women from Venus by John Gray (and even before that) it has long been realised that men and women’s brains are different. We think differently, react to stress differently and even our development of cognitive impairment is different.

In regards to stress, in a non-stressed state men and women do think more similarly. Under stress however, men appear more motivated to react more quickly and with the area in their brain associated with reward (or addiction!) lighting up. In women under stress that same area showed reduced activity.

The implication of this is that men are greater risk takers, because of a perceived reward and may consequently gain greater reward from tasks performed under stress.

For women we take a more reflective approach when under stress, taking time to evaluate first. This could be advantageous in coming up with a better decision in the longer term!

It appears interesting that this is the away we have developed from an evolutionary perspective. Perhaps we truly are the Yin and the Yang for each other especially when under stress.

In Alzheimer’s disease the pattern of grey matter loss is also different between the sexes.

Brain atrophy begins earlier in women but their cognitive decline is less rapid. In comparing both men and women at the same stage of Alzheimer’s in terms of clinical symptoms, it was noted that men showed a steeper loss of brain volume at the time that cognitive decline became apparent, whereas in women the brain volume loss occurred at an earlier stage of cognitive deterioration plus they had worse language impairment.

The implications of these findings are that the development of therapies for people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s may need to be different, depending on the sex of the person.

One question now being asked is whether women may have higher cognitive reserve rendering us more resistant to cognitive decline. Such reserve, is enhanced by higher levels of mental, physical and social engagement in all aspects of everyday life.

So chaps, it could be time to ensure you are actively engaging your brain in lots of different activities to help you stimulate greater cognitive reserve.


N. R. Lighthall, M. Sakaki, S. Vasunilashorn, L. Nga, S. Somayajula, E. Y. Chen, N. Samii, M. Mather. Gender differences in reward-related decision processing under stress. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsr026

Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) 98th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting: Abstract SSE16-02. Presented November 26, 2012.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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