Diffusion tensor MR imaging (DT-MRI) yields information on early pathological changes in white matter of the ageing brain which may correlate with cognitive function. However, because individuals vary in their cognitive ability, a measurement of prior cognition from youth is required to understand fully the significance of MR imaging changes associated with ageing. Here, diffusion tensor parameters and cognitive function were measured in a cohort of 30 older subjects whose cognitive ability was measured at age 11 and 80. There was a significant correlation between diffusion anisotropy measured in the centrum semiovale at age 80 and mental ability determined at age 11 and 80. These novel results suggest, that MR imaging studies of white matter structure and its relationship to mental ability in ageing should control for early life cognition.