Jump, Hop, or Skip: Modeling Practice Effects in Studies of Determinants of Cognitive Change in Older Adults

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Improvements in cognitive test scores upon repeated assessment due to practice effects (PEs) are well documented, but there is no empirical evidence on whether alternative specifications of PEs result in different estimated associations between exposure and rate of cognitive change. If alternative PE specifications produce different estimates of association between an exposure and rate of cognitive change, this would be a challenge for nearly all longitudinal research on determinants of cognitive aging. Using data from 3 cohort studies—the Three-City Study–Dijon (Dijon, France, 1999–2010), the Normative Aging Study (Greater Boston, Massachusetts, 1993–2007), and the Washington Heights-Inwood Community Aging Project (New York, New York, 1999–2012)—for 2 exposures (diabetes and depression) and 3 cognitive outcomes, we compared results from longitudinal models using alternative PE specifications: no PEs; use of an indicator for the first cognitive visit; number of prior testing occasions; and square root of the number of prior testing occasions. Alternative specifications led to large differences in the estimated rates of cognitive change but minimal differences in estimated associations of exposure with cognitive level or change. Based on model fit, using an indicator for the first visit was often (but not always) the preferred model. PE specification can lead to substantial differences in estimated rates of cognitive change, but in these diverse examples and study samples it did not substantively affect estimated associations of risk factors with change.

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