The literature on cognitive markers in preclinical AD is reviewed. The findings demonstrate that impairment in multiple cognitive domains is typically observed several years before clinical diagnosis. Measures of executive functioning, episodic memory and perceptual speed appear to be most effective at identifying at-risk individuals. The fact that these cognitive domains are most implicated in normal cognitive aging suggests that the cognitive deficit observed preclinically is not qualitatively different from that observed in normal aging. The degree of cognitive impairment prior to the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD) appears to generalize relatively well across major study characteristics, including sample ascertainment procedures, age and cognitive status of participants, as well as time to diagnosis of dementia. In episodic memory, there is evidence that the size of the preclinical deficit increases with increasing cognitive demands. The global cognitive impairment observed is highly consistent with observations that multiple brain structures and functions are affected long before the diagnosis of AD. However, there is substantial overlap in the distribution of cognitive scores between those who will and those who will not be diagnosed with AD, hence limiting the clinical utility of cognitive markers for early identification of cases. Future research should consider combining cognitive indicators with other types of markers (i.e. social, somatic, genetic, brain-based) in order to increase prediction accuracy.