Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Are Age-Related Changes in Cognitive Function Driven by Age-Related Changes in Sensory Processing?

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Are Age-Related Changes in Cognitive Function Driven by Age-Related Changes in Sensory Processing?

Article excerpt

Published online: 20 December 2012

© The Author(s) 2012. This article is published with open access at

Abstract Although there has been keen interest in the association among measures of sensory function and cognitive function for many years, in general, measures of sensory function have been confined to one or two senses and measures of threshold sensitivity (acuity). In this study, rigorous psychophysical measures of threshold sensitivity, temporal gap detection, temporal order identification, and temporal masking have been obtained, in hearing, vision, and touch. In addition, all subjects completed 15 subtests of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, 3rd edition (WAIS- III). Data were obtained from 245 adults (18-87 years old) for the WAIS-III and for 40 measures of threshold sensitivity and temporal processing. The focus in this report is on individual differences in performance for the entire data set. Principal-components (PC) factor analysis reduced the 40 psychophysical measures to eight correlated factors, which were reduced further to a single global sensoiy processing factor. Similarly, PC factor analysis of the 15 WAIS-III scores resulted in three correlated factors that were further reduced to a single global cognitive function factor. Age, global sensory processing, and global cognitive function were all moderately and significantly correlated with one another. However, paired partial correlations, controlling for the third of these three measures, revealed that the moderate correlation between age and global cognitive function went to zero when global sensory processing was controlled for; the other two partial correlations remained intact. Structural models confirmed this result. These analyses suggest that the long-standing observation of age-related changes in cognitive function may be mediated by age-related changes in global sensory processing.

Keywords Aging Cognition Threshold Temporal order · Temporal masking

Sensory function declines with advancing age, especially for hearing and vision (for reviews, see, e.g., Fozard, 1990; Schacht & Hawkins, 2005). Likewise, there has been a long awareness of cognitive deficits with advancing age in oth- erwise healthy adults (e.g., Salthouse, 2010). More recently, over the past quarter century or so, researchers have turned their attention to the possible association of these two age- related declines (e.g., Lindenberger & Baltes, 1994; Schneider & Pichora-Fuller, 2000). Schneider and Pichora- Fuller reviewed several of the competing theories about the association between sensory and cognitive decline and la- beled them as follows: (1) the sensory deprivation hypoth- esis, (2) the information degradation hypothesis, (3) the cognitive-load-on-perception hypothesis, and (4) the common-cause hypothesis. Briefly, the sensory deprivation hypothesis and the information degradation hypothesis both suggest that cognitive decline is preceded by sensory de- cline, with the difference between these two hypotheses being in the time required for the sensory decline to have an impact (long vs. immediate or chronic vs. acute for the deprivation and degradation hypotheses, respectively). The cognitive-load-on perception hypothesis, unlike the two preceding hypotheses, suggests that age-related declines in cognition drive or precede measured changes in sensory processing. Finally, the common-cause hypothesis suggests that there is a common underlying factor that concurrently has a negative impact on sensory processing and cognitive function with advancing age.

Although there have been some exceptions, at least for measures of acuity in more than two senses (e.g., Stevens, Cruz, Marks, & Lakatos, 1998), for the most part, studies of the association between sensory and cognitive function across the adult lifespan have involved (1) hearing, vision, or both; and (2) simple measiues of sensory processing for each sense, such as Snellen charts for visual acuity or pure- tone audiometry for hearing acuity. …

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