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The Effects of Age on Cognitive Deficits in Schizophrenia

(PSYCHIATRIC TIMES) - Cognitive deficits are increasingly being recognized as a central feature of schizophrenia. Some impairments are present before the hallmark positive symptoms of the illness emerge (Cornblatt et al., 1999; Davidson et al., 1999), and moderate-to-severe impairments across many cognitive domains are detectable at the time of the first episode (Bilder et al., 2000; Saykin et al., 1994). Cognitive deficits appear to be largely consistent in severity across changes in clinical state (Harvey et al., 1990) and appear stable from emergence of the first episode until after middle age (Rund, 1998). These findings suggest that cognitive deficits are not simply a consequence of the symptoms of the illness or its treatment. Throughout the course of the illness, positive symptoms fluctuate depending on the overall pattern of treatment response of the patient, while cognitive deficits are typically reported to manifest minimal improvement and to be the best predictors of impairments in functional skills (Green, 1996). Studies of cognitive deficits in schizophrenia have moved from descriptive to predictive since their link to functional outcome has been well-replicated (Green et al., 2000). Thus, cognitive deficits are now recognized as an important treatment goal.

With the aging of the baby boomer generation, a large number of patients with schizophrenia are now reaching late life. Yet, many studies of the course of schizophrenia have failed to include truly elderly patients. This may lead to misperceptions regarding the characteristics of cognitive impairments in later life, if the course of the illness is inferred from studies with truncated age ranges. In addition, many studies of possible age effects on cognition are cross-sectional, such that they compare the functioning of elderly patients to a younger cohort. This methodology is certainly more feasible and is often useful in generating hypotheses for longitudinal designs. However, conclusions from any cross-sectional studies about the course of any illness must be viewed with caution. An additional consideration involves overall lifetime outcome of the illness, often indexed by the residential status of older patients with schizophrenia. Those patients with substantial functional deficits would be expected to be more impaired than ambulatory patients, who have often had a much more variable course. In this review, we will discuss age-related changes in cognitive functioning in schizophrenia.
Cross-Sectional Studies

A number of cross-sectional studies have been employed to compare cognitive functioning in older to younger patients with schizophrenia. Heaton et al. (1994) found that the cognitive profiles and levels of impairment in older ambulatory patients with schizophrenia were consistent with the impairments seen in younger patients. Both younger and older patients had prominent deficits in learning and memory, executive functioning, and attention, compared to control subjects. They even performed more poorly than patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD) on most domains. Although there were no age-associated differences in performance, the level of impairment was quite severe. Similar results were reported for scores on the Mattis Dementia Rating Scale (MDRS) (a global index of cognitive functioning) across the age range (Eyler Zorrilla et al., 2000). In this study, older ambulatory patients with schizophrenia were found to have no age-corrected greater impairments than younger patients. These cross-sectional studies suggest that cognitive impairments are stable from mid-life to later years, although the age range of these samples did not include a large number of truly elderly patients.

Although Heaton et al. (1994) and Eyler Zorrilla et al. (2000) found no age-related differences in cognition, it is important to examine additional cohorts, such as those patients with more chronic schizophrenia. While efforts at deinstitutionalization and community integration persist, a substantial number of patients with schizophrenia remain in psychiatric hospitals or other full-care residences, such as nursing homes, into late life. Since these patients have had a very different course of illness during most of their lives, compared to ambulatory patients, other characteristics may differ as well. Evans et al. (1999) found that institutionalized patients performed more poorly on the MDRS than ambulatory patients. Similarly, Harvey et al. (1998) found substantial differences between acutely and chronically ill patients using a neuropsychological battery designed for the assessment of older individuals. Other groups have also found more severe cognitive impairments in patients residing innursing homes compared to ambulatory patients (Auslander et al., 2001; Bartels et al., 1997).

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