Terminal dedifferentiation of cognitive abilities

R. S. Wilson*, E. Segawa, L. P. Hizel, P. A. Boyle, D. A. Bennett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Objective: To test the cognitive dedifferentiation hypothesis that cognitive abilities become increasingly correlated in late life. Methods: Participants are 174 older persons without dementia at the beginning of a longitudinal clinical-pathologic cohort study. At annual intervals for 6 to 15 years prior to death, they completed a battery of cognitive performance tests from which previously established composite measures of episodic memory, semantic memory, working memory, and perceptual speed were derived. At death, there was a uniform neuropathologic assessment and levels of diffuse plaques, neuritic plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles were summarized in a composite measure. Change in the 4 cognitive outcomes was analyzed simultaneously in a mixed-effects model that allowed rate of decline to accelerate at a variable point before death. Results: On average, cognitive decline before the terminal period was relatively gradual, and rates of change in different cognitive domains were moderately correlated, ranging from 0.25 (episodic memory-working memory) to 0.46 (episodic memory-semantic memory). By contrast, cognition declined rapidly during the terminal period, and rates of change in different cognitive functions were strongly correlated, ranging from 0.83 (working memory-perceptual speed) to 0.89 (episodic memory-semantic memory, semantic memory-working memory). Higher level of plaques and tangles on postmortem examination was associated with faster preterminal decline and earlier onset of terminal decline but not with rate of terminal decline or correlations between rates of change in different cognitive functions. Conclusion: In the last years of life, covariation among cognitive abilities sharply increases consistent with the cognitive dedifferentiation hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1116-1122
Number of pages7
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 10 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology


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