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Personality and Individual Differences 46 (2009) 71–73

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Personality and Individual Differences

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Short Communication

A test of the cascade model in the elderly

Tess Gregory a,b,*, Ted Nettelbeck a, Sara Howard a,b, Carlene Wilson a,b
School of Psychology, University of Adelaide, Level 4, Hughes Building, South Australia 5005, Australia
CSIRO Human Nutrition, South Australia 5005, Australia

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: The cascade theory (Fry & Hale, 1996) posits that developmental changes in perceptual speed in child-
Received 5 February 2008 hood increase the capacity of working memory, which increases fluid reasoning performance. Support
Received in revised form 15 August 2008 for this theory is available from cross-sectional and longitudinal research. Similar cognitive changes have
Accepted 21 August 2008
been reported in elderly adults as decreasing speed and working memory capacity with age result in
Available online 2 October 2008
decreasing fluid reasoning (Salthouse, 1991). Thus, this study investigated whether the cascade theory
could explain age-related deterioration in fluid reasoning by replicating Kail’s (2007) longitudinal study
in elderly adults. One hundred and twenty one elderly people completed measures of perceptual speed,
Cognitive abilities
Cascade theory
working memory and fluid reasoning at Time 1. Eighteen-months later, participants were retested on
Aging fluid reasoning. Results provided partial support for the cascade theory, confirming a significant path
Perceptual speed from age to fluid reasoning via perceptual speed and working memory. However, both cross-sectional
Working memory and longitudinal models also included a significant direct path from perceptual speed to fluid reasoning,
Fluid reasoning inconsistent with the cascade model. Therefore, it is possible that the cascade model does not explain
aged-related changes in fluid reasoning in the same way that it explains developmental change in fluid
reasoning in children.
Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction Thus, there is cross-sectional and longitudinal support for the

cascade model in children.
As children mature, there are well documented improvements Similar trends of cognitive change but in the opposite direction
in mental abilities including perceptual speed, working memory are observable in elderly adults, who exhibit deterioration in pro-
and fluid reasoning. These abilities improve simultaneously and, cessing speed, working memory and fluid reasoning with advanc-
at times, rapidly during childhood and have led to questions ing age. An interesting question, therefore, is whether the
about the causal links between them. For instance, the cascade cascade model explains the relationships between these constructs
model (Fry & Hale, 1996) suggests that developmental changes in old age. If so, it would mean that age-related slowing (decreas-
in perceptual speed increase the capacity of working memory, ing perceptual speed) reduces the capacity of working memory,
which inturn facilitates reasoning abilities. Fry and Hale (2000) which subsequently impairs reasoning abilities. Salthouse (1991)
subsequently reviewed the relevant literature that supported examined relationships between age, speed, working memory
their conclusion that the effects of perceptual speed on fluid rea- and fluid reasoning in adults aged 20–84 years. He did not refer
soning in children are indirect and are mediated by working to the cascade theory in his paper but his results can be examined
memory. However, noting that these conclusions were drawn for consistency with that model. Salthouse provided evidence that
from concurrent relationships between the constructs, Kail age-related slowing in speed of processing reduced the capacity of
(2007) performed a replication of Fry and Hale’s study whereby working memory, which inturn led to decreased fluid reasoning
he retested the participants on fluid intelligence 12-months la- performance. However, he also found that speed of processing
ter. He replicated Fry and Hale’s cross-sectional findings and also had a direct effect on cognition, which has not been found in chil-
found longitudinal support for the cascade theory. Working dren. Salthouse’s findings therefore provided some support for the
memory predicted fluid reasoning at 12-months directly but per- cascade theory but suggested that the causal links are more com-
ceptual speed only had an indirect effect via working memory. plicated among elderly adults. Moreover, as pointed out by Kail
(2007), conclusions based on a cross-sectional design require lon-
gitudinal verification. The aim of the current study was therefore
* Corresponding author. Address: School of Psychology, University of Adelaide,
to test the cascade theory in elderly adults using longitudinal data.
Level 4, Hughes Building, South Australia 5005, Australia. Tel.: +61 8 8303 3055;
fax: +61 8 8303 3770. Specifically, we have replicated Kail (2007) analysis but in a group
E-mail address: (T. Gregory). of elderly adults.

0191-8869/$ - see front matter Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
72 T. Gregory et al. / Personality and Individual Differences 46 (2009) 71–73

2. Method Table 1
Correlation matrix for age and cognitive measures (n = 121)

One hundred and fifty elderly adults (70–91 years) were re- 1 2 3 4 5
cruited through newspapers, radio and television. The sample con- 1. Age (years)
sisted of 99 women (M = 77.7 years, SD = 4.8) and 51 men 2. Digit symbol .272**
(M = 77.4 years, SD = 3.6). Participants were highly educated 3. Reading span .299** .271*
4. RSPM (odd) .209* .425** .372**
(M = 11.7 years of formal education) and had good self-reported
5. RSPM (even) .170 .493** .337** .698**
health. At Time 1, they completed a test of perceptual speed (DS:
Mean 77.28 55.65 14.56 17.19 13.98
digit symbol) and working memory (RS: reading span).1 For DS
SD 4.18 13.02 8.71 4.62 4.42
(Wechsler, 1981), the participant was presented with a key where
each number (1–9) was paired with a unique symbol, followed by Note: RSPM = Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices. All measures were taken at
Time 1 except for RSPM (even), which was measured 18-months later at Time 2.
a random series of numbers, each of which required the correct sym- *
p < .05.
bol. The participant recorded these as quickly as possible. Number **
p < .01.
correct in 2-min was recorded. In RS (Daneman & Carpenter,
1980), participants read a sentence presented on the computer
screen, answered a multiple choice question about the sentence, Following Kail (2007), the cascade model was tested using
read the next sentence, and so on. When the final sentence in the structural equation modelling. Fit was evaluated using the ad-
set had been completed participants were required to write down justed goodness of fit index (AGFI > .90) and the root mean error
the final word in each of the sentences in order. The set lengths were of approximation (RMSEA < .10). First, Time 1 data were modelled
1, 2, 3 or 4 and participants attempted three items in each set. Two using six paths: from age to DS, to RS and to RSPM, from DS to RS
out of three items had to be completed correctly to progress to the and RSPM, and from RS to RSPM. The path from age to RSPM was
next set and number of final words recalled correctly was recorded not significant (p = .67) and was removed. The reduced model
(max = 30 words). Consistent with Kail (2007), participants com- had an acceptable fit (v2 (1) = 0.178, p > .05, AGFI = .993,
pleted 30 odd numbered questions (1, 3, 5, . . . , 59) from Raven’s Stan- RMSEA = .000), and all paths were significant. This model is consis-
dard Progressive Matrices (RSPM: de Lemos, 1995) as a measure of tent with the cascade model, confirming that age-related changes
fluid reasoning at Time 1. Items were presented on a computer in perceptual speed lead to decrements in working memory and,
screen, responses were made via the keyboard and a 10-min time in turn fluid, reasoning. However, the model also identified a direct
limit was imposed. effect of perceptual speed on fluid reasoning, not mediated by
Participants completed the tests in the order: DS, RS and RSPM. working memory, and a direct effect of age on working memory
At Time 2, approximately 18-months later, participants completed not mediated by perceptual speed. This model is more consistent
the 30 even numbered questions (2, 4, 6, . . . , 60) from the RSPM. Of with Salthouse (1991) than with Kail (2007) and suggests that
the 150 participants at Time 1, 127 completed the testing at Time the effects of perceptual speed and working memory on fluid rea-
2, and 121 had full data available. soning are more complex in elderly adults than in development
with children.
3. Results and discussion The longitudinal model was tested to see whether this same pat-
tern held over time, using the significant paths from the cross-sec-
Kail (2007) reported moderate correlations between the cogni- tional model and additional paths from DS, RS and RSPM at Time 1
tive tasks and age in the children. The magnitude of these correla- to RSPM at Time 2. The model had an acceptable fit (AGFI = .988,
tions was similar to those reported by Salthouse (1991), although, RMSEA = .000) but the path from RS to RSPM Time 2 was not signif-
his participants spanned the entire adult age range (20–84 years). icant and was therefore removed. The final model fit the data well
From Table 1, it is clear that the correlations between age and cog- (v2 (3) = 1.28, p > .05, AGFI = .979, RMSEA = .000), and is shown in
nition are substantially smaller among our elderly participants but Fig. 1. These longitudinal results suggest that perceptual speed has
this is not surprising, given the narrower age range than in Salt- a direct causal relationship with age-related decline in fluid reason-
house’s (1991) study. Current results were, however, very similar ing as well as an effect that is mediated by working memory. This
to those from a comparable study of elderly people (60–90 years) finding is inconsistent with the cascade model, where the effects of
by Anstey and Smith (1999) who found a mean correlation with perceptual speed on fluid reasoning are entirely mediated by work-
age of .30 for reasoning, .28 for perceptual speed and .26 for ing memory. Moreover, it suggests that the effects of working mem-
working memory. Correlations between the cognitive tasks at Time ory on fluid reasoning are isolated to baseline performance but not
1 were all significant and in the expected direction. That is, quicker
performance on DS was associated with superior performance in
RS and RSPM, and superior performance in RS was associated with
better performance on RSPM. Performance on the RSPM at Times 1
and 2 was also correlated significantly (r = .70, p < .05). The mean
scores for RSPM suggest that performance declined over the 18-
months period of the study.2

The test battery included three tests for each of perceptual speed and working
memory. However, only DS and RS discriminated between participants, displaying
meaningful age effects. We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for helpful
comments on this issue.
Although RSPM declined over time as expected, the magnitude of this change
may have been exaggerated by the method of splitting questions to produce parallel
forms. As brought to our attention by Professors Ian Deary and Earl Hunt, small Fig. 1. Longitudinal structural equation model of the relationship between age,
differences in difficulty between each odd and even item can accumulate when digit symbol, reading span and Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM) in
summed over the whole task. elderly adults (n = 121).
T. Gregory et al. / Personality and Individual Differences 46 (2009) 71–73 73

changes in fluid reasoning. However, Salthouse (1991) has pointed to the salience of perceptual speed over working memory as a pre-
out that, where a timed cognitive test is used, number correct can dictor of deterioration in fluid reasoning.
confound speed and accuracy, increasing the probability of observ-
ing a direct path between speed and cognition. That RSPM was References
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explained straight forwardly by the cascade model. Results point

We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.