Visuospatial Processing Speed Slows with Aging

Researchers here present data on the age-related slowdown in visuospatial processing speed, where visuospatial processing refers to building and updating a mental model of the surrounding environment based on sight alone. Slowing and reduced capacity of cognitive functions is characteristic of aging. This measure is interesting for some of the correlations found with other aspects of degenerative aging, particularly mobility issues. Visuospatial processing is a necessary part of navigating the environment, but it is interesting to speculate on whether the connection with loss of mobility is the obvious one, or whether this is a coincidence in the effects of an increased burden of cell and tissue damage on disparate parts of the body and brain.

Visuospatial processing speed underlies several cognitive functions critical for successful completion of everyday tasks, including driving and walking. While it is widely accepted that visuospatial processing speed peaks in early adulthood, performance across the lifespan remains incompletely characterized. We developed a novel visuospatial processing speed (VIPS) task adapted from two tests sensitive to visuospatial processing speed declines in older adults, the Useful Field of View paradigm and the PERformance CEntered Portable Test. The VIPS task requires participants to make a central orientation discrimination and complete a simultaneous peripheral visual search task.

Data were collected from 86 in-lab volunteers (18-30 years) to compare performance to traditional neuropsychological measures. Consistent with previous literature, performance on the novel VIPS task significantly correlated with measures of selective attention, executive functioning, visual speed, and working memory. An additional 4,395 volunteers (12-62 years) were recruited on to establish lifespan trajectories of visuospatial processing speed and associations with functional disability. VIPS task performance peaked in the early 20's, and steadily decreased such that thresholds doubled in 60-year-olds relative to 20-year-olds (817 ms vs. 412 ms).

VIPS task performance significantly correlated with self-reported cognitive functioning deficits broadly across the lifespan but was specifically related to mobility issues in middle-age. These findings have important implications for early detection of cognitive decline and provide insights into potential early intervention targets for younger and middle-aged adults.


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