Cerebral white matter lesions (WMLs) have been associated with cognitive dysfunction. Whether periventricular or subcortical WMLs relate differently to cognitive function is still uncertain. In addition, it is unclear whether WMLs are related to specific cognitive domains such as memory or psychomotor speed. We examined the relationship between periventricular and subcortical WMLs and cognitive functioning in 1,077 elderly subjects randomly sampled from the general population. Quantification of WMLs was assessed by means of an extensive rating scale on 1.5-T magnetic resonance imaging scans. Cognitive function was assessed by using multiple neuropsychological tests from which we constructed compound scores for psychomotor speed, memory performance, and global cognitive function. When analyzed separately, both periventricular and subcortical WMLs were related to all neuropsychological measures. When periventricular WMLs were analyzed conditional on subcortical WMLs and vice versa, the relationship between periventricular WMLs and global cognitive function remained unaltered whereas the relationship with subcortical WMLs disappeared. Subjects with most severe periventricular WMLs performed nearly 1 SD below average on tasks involving psychomotor speed, and more than 0.5 SD below average for global cognitive function. Tasks that involve speed of cognitive processes appear to be more affected by WMLs than memory tasks. Ann Neurol 2000;47:145–151.