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The objective of this study was to test the hypothesis that cognitive function is negatively associated with temporal discounting in old age.
Participants were 388 community-dwelling older persons without dementia from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing longitudinal epidemiologic study of aging in the Chicago metropolitan area. Temporal discounting was measured using standard questions in which participants were asked to choose between an immediate, smaller payment and a delayed, larger one. Cognition was measured using a detailed battery including 19 tests. The association between cognition and temporal discounting was examined via mixed models adjusted for age, sex, education, income, and the number of chronic medical conditions.
Descriptive data revealed a consistent pattern whereby older persons with lower cognitive function were more likely to discount greater but delayed rewards compared to those with higher cognitive function. Further, in a mixed effect model adjusted for age, sex, education, income, and chronic medical conditions, global cognitive function was negatively associated with temporal discounting (estimate=−0.45, SE=0.18, p=0.015), such that a person with lower cognition exhibited greater discounting. Finally, in subsequent models examining domain specific associations, perceptual speed and visuospatial abilities were associated with temporal discounting, but episodic memory, semantic memory and working memory were not.
Among older persons without dementia, a lower level of cognitive function is associated with greater temporal discounting. These findings have implications regarding the ability of older persons to make decisions that involve delayed rewards but maximize well-being.