Open Access Research article

Association of cognition with temporal discounting in community based older persons

Patricia A Boyle12*, Lei Yu13, Eisuke Segawa1, Robert S Wilson123, Aron S Buchman13, David I Laibson4 and David A Bennett13

Author affiliations

1 Rush University Medical Center, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, 600 S. Paulina, Suite 1020B, Chicago, IL, 60612, USA

2 Department of Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, USA

3 Department of Neurological Sciences, Stanford, USA

4 Department of Economics, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Geriatrics 2012, 12:48  doi:10.1186/1471-2318-12-48

Published: 31 August 2012



The objective of this study was to test the hypothesis that cognitive function is negatively associated with temporal discounting in old age.


Participants were 388 community-dwelling older persons without dementia from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing longitudinal epidemiologic study of aging in the Chicago metropolitan area. Temporal discounting was measured using standard questions in which participants were asked to choose between an immediate, smaller payment and a delayed, larger one. Cognition was measured using a detailed battery including 19 tests. The association between cognition and temporal discounting was examined via mixed models adjusted for age, sex, education, income, and the number of chronic medical conditions.


Descriptive data revealed a consistent pattern whereby older persons with lower cognitive function were more likely to discount greater but delayed rewards compared to those with higher cognitive function. Further, in a mixed effect model adjusted for age, sex, education, income, and chronic medical conditions, global cognitive function was negatively associated with temporal discounting (estimate = −0.45, SE = 0.18, p = 0.015), such that a person with lower cognition exhibited greater discounting. Finally, in subsequent models examining domain specific associations, perceptual speed and visuospatial abilities were associated with temporal discounting, but episodic memory, semantic memory and working memory were not.


Among older persons without dementia, a lower level of cognitive function is associated with greater temporal discounting. These findings have implications regarding the ability of older persons to make decisions that involve delayed rewards but maximize well-being.

Aging; Cognition; Temporal discounting; Preferences; Decision making