Structure of executive functions in young and in older persons

PLoS One. 2019 May 9;14(5):e0216149. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216149. eCollection 2019.


Introduction: Using factor analysis, several studies reported that higher-order cognitive control involves separable executive functions. However, the number and definition of the purported functions differed between studies. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that executive functions don't exhibit a clear factorial structure, i.e., there is no clear dichotomy between executive function tests which are well-correlated (representing a common factor) and those which are poorly correlated (representing distinct factors). We scrutinize this explanation separately in data from young and from older persons.

Methods & results: Young and older volunteers completed cognitive tests of the purported executive functions shifting, updating, inhibition and dual-tasking (two tests per function). Confirmatory and exploratory factor analyses yielded, for either age group, factorial structures that were within the range reported in literature. More importantly, when correlations between tests were sorted in ascending order, and were then fitted them by piecewise linear regression with a breakpoint, there was no evidence for a distinct breakpoint between low and high correlations in either age group. Correlations between tests were significantly higher in older compared to young participants, and the pattern of test pairs with high and with low correlations differed between age groups.

Discussion: The absence of a breakpoint indicates that executive function tests don't segregate into well-correlated and poorly correlated pairs, and therefore are not well suited for factor analyses. We suggest that executive functions are better described as a partly overlapping rather than a factorial structure. The increase of correlations in older participants supports the existence of age-related dedifferentiation, and the dissimilarity of correlations in the two age groups supports the existence of age-related reorganization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Young Adult

Grant support

Funded by OB: BO 649/22-1. CVR: VO 1432/19-1. Both from German Research Foundation (Special research program SPP 1772). URL: The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.