Temporal Dynamics of Cognitive Performance and Anxiety Across Older Adulthood

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Abstract

Cognitive decline and anxiety symptoms commonly co-occur in later life, but the temporal order of changes on these two attributes is unclear. Specifically, it is unknown if greater anxiety leads to subsequent declines in cognitive performance or if worse cognitive performance leads to increased anxiety. In this study, we sought to elucidate the temporal dynamics between anxiety symptoms and cognitive performance across old age—that is, the extent to which level and change in one variable influence subsequent changes in a second variable. We examined data from 721 nondemented participants from the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Aging. Participants completed as many as eight assessments of cognitive performance and anxiety over a 26-year period. Bivariate dual-change score models were fit to examine the dynamic association between anxiety and cognitive performance. Bidirectional associations between anxiety and cognitive performance were found among measures of processing speed, attention, and memory but not visuospatial abilities. Higher anxiety was associated with greater declines in processing speed over the duration of 6 years and worsening attention over a span of 3 years. The reverse direction was also significant in that slower processing speed, worse attention, and poorer nonverbal and working memory performance were associated with larger increases in anxiety 3 years later. These findings highlight that in cognitively intact older adults, the association between anxiety and worse cognitive performance is bidirectional and complex.

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