Misinterpreting Cognitive Change Over Multiple Timepoints: When Practice Effects Meet Age-Related Decline

Mark Sanderson-Cimino*, Ruohui Chen, Xin M. Tu, Jeremy A. Elman, Amy J. Jak, William S. Kremen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: Practice effects (PE) on cognitive testing have been shown to delay detection of impairment and impede our ability to assess change. When decline over time is expected, as with older adults or progressive diseases, failure to adequately address PEs may lead to inaccurate conclusions because PEs artificially boost scores while pathology- or age-related decline reduces scores. Unlike most methods, a participant-replacement approach can separate pathology- or age-related decline from PEs; however, this approach has only been used across two timepoints. More than two timepoints make it possible to determine if PEs level out after the first follow-up, but it is analytically challenging because individuals may not be assessed at every timepoint. Method: We examined 1,190 older adults who were cognitively unimpaired (n = 809) or had mild cognitive impairment (MCI; n = 381). Participants completed six neuropsychological measures at three timepoints (baseline, 12-month, 24-month). We implemented a participant-replacement method using generalized estimating equations in comparisons of matched returnees and replacements to calculate PEs. Results: Without accounting for PEs, cognitive function appeared to improve or stay the same. However, with the participant-replacement method, we observed significant PEs within both groups at all timepoints. PEs did not uniformly decrease across time; some—specifically on episodic memory measures—continued to increase beyond the first follow-up. Conclusion: A replacement method of PE adjustment revealed significant PEs across two follow-ups. As expected in these older adults, accounting for PEs revealed cognitive decline. This, in turn, means earlier detection of cognitive deficits, including progression to MCI, and more accurate characterization of longitudinal change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)568-581
Number of pages14
Issue number5
StatePublished - Apr 20 2023


  • cognitive aging
  • longitudinal change
  • practice effects

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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