Misuse of the linear mixed model when evaluating risk factors of cognitive decline

Am J Epidemiol. 2011 Nov 1;174(9):1077-88. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwr243. Epub 2011 Sep 30.


The linear mixed model (LMM), which is routinely used to describe change in outcomes over time and its association with risk factors, assumes that a unit change in any predictor is associated with a constant change in the outcome. When it is used on psychometric tests, this assumption may not hold. Indeed, psychometric tests usually suffer from ceiling and/or floor effects and curvilinearity (i.e., varying sensitivity to change). The authors aimed to determine the consequences of such misspecification when evaluating predictors of cognitive decline. As an alternative to the LMM, they considered 2 mixed models based on latent processes that handle discrete and bounded outcomes. Model differences are illustrated here using data on 4 psychometric tests from the Personnes Agées QUID (PAQUID) Study (1989-2004). The type I error of the Wald test for risk-factor regression parameters was formally assessed in a simulation study. It demonstrated that type I errors in the LMM could be dramatically inflated for some tests, such that spurious associations with risk factors were found. In particular, confusion between effects on mean level and effects on change over time was highlighted. The authors recommend use of the alternative mixed models when studying psychometric tests and more generally quantitative scales (quality of life, activities of daily living).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Dementia / epidemiology
  • Dementia / etiology
  • Educational Status
  • France / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Linear Models*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Models, Statistical
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychometrics
  • Risk Factors