The role of intraindividual cognitive variability in posttraumatic stress syndromes and cognitive aging: a literature search and proposed research agenda

Int Psychogeriatr. 2021 Jul;33(7):677-687. doi: 10.1017/S1041610220000228. Epub 2020 Mar 16.


Objectives: Cognitive impairments are directly related to severity of symptoms and are a primary cause for functional impairment. Intraindividual cognitive variability likely plays a role in both risk and resiliency from symptoms. In fact, such cognitive variability may be an earlier marker of cognitive decline and emergent psychiatric symptoms than traditional psychiatric or behavioral symptoms. Here, our objectives were to survey the literature linking intraindividual cognitive variability, trauma, and dementia and to suggest a potential research agenda.

Design: A wide body of literature suggests that exposure to major stressors is associated with poorer cognitive performance, with intraindividual cognitive variability in particular linked to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of severe trauma.

Measurements: In this narrative review, we survey the empirical studies to date that evaluate the connection between intraindividual cognitive variability, PTSD, and pathological aging including dementia.

Results: The literature suggests that reaction time (RT) variability within an individual may predict future cognitive impairment, including premature cognitive aging, and is significantly associated with PTSD symptoms.

Conclusions: Based on our findings, we argue that intraindividual RT variability may serve as a common pathological indicator for trauma-related dementia risk and should be investigated in future studies.

Keywords: aging; cognitive assessment; cognitive impairment; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); risk factors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / trends*
  • Cognition*
  • Cognitive Aging / psychology*
  • Dementia / complications
  • Dementia / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Prognosis
  • Reaction Time
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / complications
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*