Continuity of Genetic and Environmental Influences on Cognition Across the Life Span: A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Twin and Adoption Studies

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Abstract

The longitudinal rank-order stability of cognitive ability increases dramatically over the life span. Theoretical perspectives differ in their emphasis on genetic mechanisms in explaining the longitudinal stability of cognition and how stability changes with development. However, the patterns of stability of genetic and environmental influences on cognition over the life span remain poorly understood. We searched for longitudinal studies of cognition that reported raw genetically informative longitudinal correlations or parameter estimates from longitudinal behavior genetic models. We identified 150 combinations of time points and measures from 15 independent longitudinal samples. In total, longitudinal data came from 4,548 monozygotic twin pairs raised together, 7,777 dizygotic twin pairs raised together, 34 monozygotic twin pairs raised apart, 78 dizygotic twin pairs raised apart, 141 adoptive sibling pairs, and 143 nonadoptive sibling pairs, ranging in age from infancy through late adulthood. At all ages, cross-time genetic correlations and shared environmental correlations were substantially larger than cross-time nonshared environmental correlations. Cross-time correlations for genetic and shared environmental components were, respectively, low and moderate during early childhood, increased sharply over child development, and remained high from adolescence through late adulthood. Cross-time correlations for nonshared environmental components were low across childhood and gradually increased to moderate magnitudes in adulthood. Increasing phenotypic stability over child development was almost entirely mediated by genetic factors. Time-based decay of genetic and shared environmental stability was more pronounced earlier in child development. Results are interpreted in reference to theories of gene–environment correlation and interaction.

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