Cognitive reserve and clinical progression in Alzheimer disease: A paradoxical relationship


To investigate the relationship between cognitive reserve (CR) and clinical progression across the Alzheimer disease (AD) spectrum.


We selected 839 β-amyloid (Aβ)–positive participants with normal cognition (NC, n = 175), mild cognitive impairment (MCI, n = 437), or AD dementia (n = 227) from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI). CR was quantified using standardized residuals (W scores) from a (covariate-adjusted) linear regression with global cognition (13-item Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale–cognitive subscale) as an independent variable of interest, and either gray matter volumes or white matter hyperintensity volume as dependent variables. These W scores, reflecting whether an individual’s degree of cerebral damage is lower or higher than clinically expected, were tested as predictors of diagnostic conversion (i.e., NC to MCI/AD dementia, or MCI to AD dementia) and longitudinal changes in memory (ADNI-MEM) and executive functions (ADNI-EF).


The median follow-up period was 24 months (interquartile range 6–42). Corrected for age, sex, APOE4 status, and baseline cerebral damage, higher gray matter volume-based W scores (i.e., greater CR) were associated with a lower diagnostic conversion risk (hazard ratio [HR] 0.22, p < 0.001) and slower decline in memory (β = 0.48, p < 0.001) and executive function (β = 0.67, p < 0.001). Stratified by disease stage, we found similar results for NC (diagnostic conversion: HR 0.30, p = 0.038; ADNI-MEM: β = 0.52, p = 0.028; ADNI-EF: β = 0.42, p = 0.077) and MCI (diagnostic conversion: HR 0.21, p < 0.001; ADNI-MEM: β = 0.43, p = 0.003; ADNI-EF: β = 0.59, p < 0.001), but opposite findings (i.e., more rapid decline) for AD dementia (ADNI-MEM: β = –0.91, p = 0.002; ADNI-EF: β = –0.77, p = 0.081).


Among Aβ-positive individuals, greater CR related to attenuated clinical progression in predementia stages of AD, but accelerated cognitive decline after the onset of dementia.

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