• education;
  • cognition;
  • reading ability;
  • cognitive reserve

OBJECTIVES: To cross-sectionally quantify the contribution of proxy measures of cognitive reserve reflective of the lifespan, such as education, socioeconomic status (SES), reading ability, and cognitive activities, in explaining late-life cognition.

DESIGN: Prospective observational cohort study of aging.

SETTING: Retirement communities across the Chicago metropolitan area.

PARTICIPANTS: Nine hundred fifty-one older adults free of clinical dementia in the Rush Memory and Aging Project (aged 79±8, 74% female).

MEASUREMENTS: Baseline data on multiple life course factors included early-, mid-, and late-life participation in cognitive activities; early-life and adult SES; education; and reading ability (National Adult Reading Test; NART). Path analysis quantified direct and indirect standardized effects of life course factors on global cognition and five cognitive domains (episodic memory, semantic memory, working memory, visuospatial ability, perceptual speed).

RESULTS: Adjusting for age, sex, and race, education had the strongest association with global cognition, episodic memory, semantic memory, and visuospatial ability, whereas NART (followed by education) had the strongest association with working memory. Late-life cognitive activities had the strongest association with perceptual speed, followed by education.

CONCLUSIONS: These cross-sectional findings suggest that education and reading ability are the most-robust proxy measures of cognitive reserve in relation to late-life cognition. Additional research leveraging path analysis is warranted to better understand how these life course factors, reflecting the latent construct of cognitive reserve, affect abnormal cognitive aging.