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A Meta-analysis of Heritability of Cognitive Aging: Minding the “Missing Heritability” Gap


The etiologies underlying variation in adult cognitive performance and cognitive aging have enjoyed much attention in the literature, but much of that attention has focused on broad factors, principally general cognitive ability. The current review provides meta-analyses of age trends in heritability of specific cognitive abilities and considers the profile of genetic and environmental factors contributing to cognitive aging to address the 'missing heritability' issue. Our findings, based upon evaluating 27 reports in the literature, indicate that verbal ability demonstrated declining heritability, after about age 60, as did spatial ability and perceptual speed more modestly. Trends for general memory, working memory, and spatial ability generally indicated stability, or small increases in heritability in mid-life. Equivocal results were found for executive function. A second meta-analysis then considered the gap between twin-based versus SNP-based heritability derived from population-based GWAS studies. Specifically, we considered twin correlation ratios to agnostically re-evaluate biometrical models across age and by cognitive domain. Results modestly suggest that nonadditive genetic variance may become increasingly important with age, especially for verbal ability. If so, this would support arguments that lower SNP-based heritability estimates result in part from uncaptured non-additive influences (e.g., dominance, gene-gene interactions), and possibly gene-environment (GE) correlations. Moreover, consistent with longitudinal twin studies of aging, as rearing environment becomes a distal factor, increasing genetic variance may result in part from nonadditive genetic influences or possible GE correlations. Sensitivity to life course dynamics is crucial to understanding etiological contributions to adult cognitive performance and cognitive aging.

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