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Intra-individual variability across fluid cognition can reveal qualitatively different cognitive styles of the aging brain

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published
Article number1973
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>16/10/2018
<mark>Journal</mark>Frontiers in Psychology
Volume9
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Dispersion is a measure of intra-individual variability reflecting how much performance across distinct cognitive functions varies within an individual. In cognitive aging studies, results are inconsistent: some studies report an increase in dispersion with increasing age and decline in performance, while others report an increasingly homogenous cognitive profile in older adults. We propose that inconsistencies may reflect qualitative differences in the cognitive functioning of the aging brain: age-groups may differ in how efficiently they engage resources, depending on both executive processing and resources available. This in turn would result in either greater or less dispersion. 21 young (mean 25.14 years, SD ± 2.85), 21 middle-old (65.05 ± 4.19), and 20 old-old (80.65 ± 4.38) healthy adults completed a series of neuropsychological tasks engaging executive processing, including switching, planning, updating, working memory and short-term memory. Individual dispersion profiles were obtained using a regression method which computes individual standard deviation across tasks from standardized test scores. Results revealed associations between performance, dispersion and cognitive reserve (measured as education level). Although differences across groups did not approach significance, there was a general pattern consistent with existing literature showing greater dispersion in the old-old group, and this was negatively associated with performance. In contrast, the middle-old group showed young-equivalent dispersion index, while performance was similar to the young group on some tasks and to the old-old group on others, possibly reflecting differences in cognitive demand. Educational level positively correlated with performance in the middle-old group only. Overall, a distinct pattern emerged for the middle-old adults: they showed young-equivalent performance on a number of measures and similar dispersion index, while uniquely benefitting from cognitive reserve. This may possibly reflect engagement in compensatory mechanisms. This study contributes to clarifying inconsistencies in previous studies and calls for more thoughtful selection of sample cohorts in aging research. The study of dispersion may provide a behavioral index of age-related changes in how cognition functions and recruits resources. Future work could examine whether this also reflects age-related changes in neural recruitment and aim at identifying factors contributing to cognitive reserve, in order to prolong good performance and improve cognition in aging.