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Is there a bidirectional relationship between depressive symptoms and cognitive ability in older people? A prospective study using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing

  • C. R. Gale (a1) (a2), M. Allerhand (a2) and I. J. Deary (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 15 March 2012

Cross-sectional surveys of older people commonly find associations between higher levels of depressive symptoms and poorer cognitive performance, but the direction of effect is unclear. We examined whether there was a bidirectional relationship between depressive symptoms and general cognitive ability in non-demented older people, and explored the role of physical health, smoking, exercise, social class and education as potential confounders of this association and as possible determinants of the rate of change of cognitive decline and depressive symptoms.


The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing consists of people aged 50 years and over. Cognitive function and self-reported depressive symptoms were measured in 2002–2003, 2004–2005, 2006–2007 and 2008–2009. We fitted linear piecewise models with fixed knot positions to allow different slopes for different age groups. Analyses are based on 8611 people.


Mean cognitive function declined with age; there was no trend in the trajectory of depressive symptoms. Better cognitive function was associated with less depression up to the age of 80 years. Greater depression was associated with a slightly faster rate of cognitive decline but only in people aged 60–80 years. There were no consistent associations across age groups between sex, smoking, education, social class, exercise or number of chronic physical illnesses and the rate of change of cognitive decline or depressive symptoms.


In this longitudinal study of older people, there was no consistent evidence that being more depressed led to an acceleration in cognitive decline and no support for the hypothesis that there might be reciprocal dynamic influences between cognitive ability and depressive symptoms.

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      Is there a bidirectional relationship between depressive symptoms and cognitive ability in older people? A prospective study using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing
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The online version of this article is published within an Open Access environment subject to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence <>. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use.
Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: C. R. Gale, Ph.D., MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit (University of Southampton), Southampton General Hospital, Southampton SO16 6YD, UK. (Email:
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