Quality of Survey Responses at Older Ages Predicts Cognitive Decline and Mortality Risk

Background and Objectives

It is widely recognized that survey satisficing, inattentive, or careless responding in questionnaires reduces the quality of self-report data. In this study, we propose that such low-quality responding (LQR) can carry substantive meaning at older ages. Completing questionnaires is a cognitively demanding task and LQR among older adults may reflect early signals of cognitive deficits and pathological aging. We hypothesized that older people displaying greater LQR would show faster cognitive decline and greater mortality risk.

Research Design and Methods

We analyzed data from 9,288 adults 65 years or older in the Health and Retirement Study. Indicators of LQR were derived from participants’ response patterns in 102 psychosocial questionnaire items administered in 2006-2008. Latent growth models examined whether LQR predicted initial status and change in cognitive functioning, assessed with the modified Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status, over the subsequent 10 years. Discrete-time survival models examined whether LQR was associated with mortality risk over the 10 years. We also examined evidence for indirect (mediated) effects in which LQR predicts mortality via cognitive trajectories.


After adjusting for age, gender, race, marital status, education, health conditions, smoking status, physical activity, and depressive symptoms, greater LQR was cross-sectionally associated with poorer cognitive functioning, and prospectively associated with faster cognitive decline over the follow-up period. Furthermore, greater LQR was associated with increased mortality risk during follow-up, and this effect was partially accounted for by the associations between LQR and cognitive functioning.

Discussion and Implications

Self-report questionnaires are not formally designed as cognitive tasks but this study shows that LQR indicators derived from self-report measures provide objective, performance-based information about individuals’ cognitive functioning and survival. Self-report surveys are ubiquitous in social science, and indicators of LQR may be of broad relevance as predictors of cognitive and health trajectories in older people.

The full study is available in Innovation in Aging.