Cognitive functioning is a hierarchy of elements including low, middle, and high cognitive variables. It has been well established that depression and anxiety can affect cognitive abilities independently and together. But most of the existing research in this area has looked at unique variables of cognitive functioning, and there remain some questions as to how anxiety and depression affect overall, broad cognitive functioning. To address these questions, Timothy A. Salthouse of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia led a study that looked at the “g” factor, the broadest, most general collection of cognitive variables, and how this was affected by trait anxiety and depression using a sample of 3,781 participants ranging in age from 18 to 97. The participants were evaluated for symptom severity and completed a series of cognitive experiments that were designed to assess general cognitive ability and working memory.
Salthouse found that, in general, only the “g” factor, the broadest collection of cognitive domains, was affected by depression or anxiety. The participants with the most severe symptoms of depression and anxiety had the largest deficits in both working memory and on specific cognitive variables, but these were reduced significantly when Salthouse controlled for the “g” factor influence. These findings were consistent across all age groups, which could be due to the participant selection. “Perhaps because of the relatively high-functioning community sample, the effects of trait anxiety and depressive symptoms on cognitive functioning were rather small,” Salthouse said.
The participants in this study provided self-reports to describe their symptom severity. Salthouse cautions that these reports could be distorted to make them more socially acceptable, particularly in cases of older participants. Although this may limit the findings, the results of this study have important implications. Salthouse hopes this evidence will prompt clinicians to look at broad cognitive functioning rather than specific deficits when evaluating impairment and quality of life in people with depression or anxiety. Doing so may allow clinicians to determine the exact effect a psychological condition is having on a client and how this relates to specific areas of his or her life.
Salthouse, Timothy A. How general are the effects of trait anxiety and depressive symptoms on cognitive functioning? Emotion 12.5 (2012): 1075-084. Print.
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