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J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2002 Mar;57(2):P101-15.

Variability in reaction time performance of younger and older adults.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.


Age differences in three basic types of variability were examined: variability between persons (diversity), variability within persons across tasks (dispersion), and variability within persons across time (inconsistency). Measures of variability were based on latency performance from four measures of reaction time (RT) performed by a total of 99 younger adults (ages 17--36 years) and 763 older adults (ages 54--94 years). Results indicated that all three types of variability were greater in older compared with younger participants even when group differences in speed were statistically controlled. Quantile-quantile plots showed age and task differences in the shape of the inconsistency distributions. Measures of within-person variability (dispersion and inconsistency) were positively correlated. Individual differences in RT inconsistency correlated negatively with level of performance on measures of perceptual speed, working memory, episodic memory, and crystallized abilities. Partial set correlation analyses indicated that inconsistency predicted cognitive performance independent of level of performance. The results indicate that variability of performance is an important indicator of cognitive functioning and aging.

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