Memory, Aging and the Brain: A Festschrift in Honour of Lars-Göran Nilsson

By Lars Bäckman; Lars Nyberg | Go to book overview

8
Sex differences in
episodic memory:
The where but not the why

Agneta Herlitz, Johanna Lovén, Petra Thilers, and Jenny Rehnman

Lars-Göran Nilsson’s genuine and deep interest in sex (variations) is well known by his friends and colleagues. Luckily, Lars-Göran has successfully been able to transfer his interest to this academic child and these grandchildren, which is why we in this chapter present an overview of sex differences in episodic memory. Our main messages are that women perform at a substantially higher level than men on verbal episodic memory and face recognition tasks, whereas there are no sex differences on tasks assessing episodic memory for nonverbal information. Men, on the other hand, outperform women on tasks requiring us to remember visuospatial episodic information. Although attempts have been made to explain these differences in terms of sex-specific influences from steroid hormones, we conclude that there is not enough evidence to support this claim at present. Much of the data presented here stem from the longitudinal population-based Betula project on memory, health, and aging, initiated and generously shared by Lars-Göran Nilsson (e.g., Nilsson et al., 1997, 2004).


Verbal episodic memory tasks

Although sex is the most basic individual-difference variable, its potential effects on episodic memory functions have been largely neglected. Nonetheless, there are a number of studies, not specifically investigating sex differences in episodic memory, reporting that women perform at a higher level than do men on episodic memory tasks. For example, sex differences in favour of women are found in word recall (Kramer, Delis, Kaplan, O’Donnell, & Prifitera, 1997), word recognition (Hill et al., 1995), story recall (Hultsch, Masson, & Small, 1991), name recognition (Larrabee & Crook, 1993), and recognition of concrete pictures and objects (Herlitz, Airaksinen, & Nordström, 1999). Confirming this pattern of data in a large population-based study of 1,000 adults, ranging in age between 35 and 80 years, we found sex differences on episodic memory tasks in which the participants were told to remember lists of words, objects, and activities (Herlitz, Nilsson, & Bäckman, 1997). The difference between men and women on a word recall task was d = 0.25 (d = MWMM/SD; Cohen, 1977), indicating a moderate female advantage.

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