Let’s settle things once and for all. When it comes to memory, who is really the superior sex? For generations, men and women have debated who can remember the most and who is the most forgetful; now, science has finally proven that, ladies, you were right all along. He really did forget to pick up the milk on the way home and his memory really is worse than yours.
According to a study of 1,246 cognitively normal people between the ages of 30 and 95, researchers discovered that a human’s memory starts to decline at the age of 30. This is the case for both sexes, but male memory tends to deteriorate faster than female memory, and men’s memory is decidedly worse than women’s after the age of 40.
Dr. Clifford Jack of the Mayo Clinic observes that from the age of 40 onwards, “we see worse memory and worse brain volumes in men than in women”. This could perhaps be due to human brains shrinking with age; males have a noticeably smaller hippocampus than women by the age of 60. This is important to note as the hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls memory and it would therefore make sense for memory to decline as the brain shrinks.
But Do Women Have an Unfair Advantage?
There are numerous studies out there demonstrating the reasons why women could have the upper hand when it comes to memory.
Psychological research suggests women remember not only faster but also more accurately and in greater detail than their male counterparts. Here, researchers point towards childhood learning as the key, and in particular to the use of storytelling and conversation to learn how to form memories.
In a New Zealand study, children whose mothers asked them to elaborate more on their experiences had better memory recall as adults. This idea is also echoed by gender and memory researcher Azriel Gyrsman, who says that gender norms tend to orient girls more towards storytelling and discussing their feelings than boys, which could also lead to better memory retention.
Other research carried out involving memory tests on 100 men and women suggests our lifestyles could affect our memories more than we had first thought. Participants were asked to remember plans that they needed to carry out in the future. Unsurprisingly, plans that were further away became increasingly difficult – but the differences between genders are perhaps the most interesting observation.
Females excelled at remembering plans involving doing tasks rather than saying things. This could explain why women tend to be the ones entrusted with remembering to collect an item such as a birthday present.
An even more intriguing argument is that practice has helped women to have the upper hand. This is because, historically, women required skills that helped them to balance running a home, raising children and going to work simultaneously, therefore helping to improve prospective memory.
Alternatively, it could all be down to biology. One of the major reasons women excel at remembering is because their hormones have a protective effect. Oestrogen has been shown to shield women who are pre-menopausal from bone loss, hypertension, heart-related disease and even urinary tract infections, whilst luteinising hormones, progesterone and varying blood volume are also advantageous.
These protective effects are not present in men and therefore they “may never achieve the same level of memory performance because their brains are developing differently from the beginning”.
So, next time your partner forgets that pint of milk – or if it’s you that forgets that important date for the diary – you can now blame it on biology!
Check out our interactive on how much data your brain can store.