Genetic and Environmental Architecture of Executive Functions in Midlife

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Abstract

Objective: Research on executive functions (EFs) has revealed evidence for general abilities that underlie performance across multiple EF tasks and domains. This Common EF factor is highly stable in adolescence through young adulthood, correlates with other important cognitive abilities, and is explained largely by genetic influences. However, little is known about Common EF beyond young adulthood. This study examines 3 hypotheses regarding the latent structure, genetic/environmental etiology, and cognitive correlates of Common EF in middle age. Method: We examined data from 1,284 middle-aged twins (51–60 years) in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging who completed 7 neuropsychological measures of EFs, as well as measures of general cognitive ability and processing speed. Results: Our confirmatory factor analysis indicated that Common EF explained variation across all 7 EF tasks. Inhibition and shifting were subsumed entirely under the Common EF factor, and there was an additional working memory span-specific factor. Common EF was heritable in midlife (a2 = .46), with additional evidence for both shared environmental influences (c2 = .41) and nonshared environmental influences (e2 = .13). Higher Common EF was moderately associated with higher general cognitive ability, measured both in early adulthood and midlife, and faster processing speed in midlife. These correlations were primarily driven by shared genetic influences. Conclusions: These results support the hypothesis that Common EF captures similar EF abilities in midlife as in adolescence and young adulthood. However, environmental influences may explain a larger portion of variance in this construct as individuals age.

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