The global population is aging rapidly, and a research question of critical importance is why some older adults suffer tremendous cognitive decline while others are mostly spared. Past aging research has shown that older adults with spared cognitive ability have better local short-range information processing while global long-range processing is less efficient. We took this research a step further to investigate whether the underlying structural connections, measured in vivo using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI), show a similar shift to support cognitive ability. We analyzed the structural connectivity streamline probability (representing the probability of connection between regions) and nodal efficiency and local efficiency regional graph theory metrics to determine if age and cognitive ability are related to structural network differences. We found that the relationship between structural connectivity and cognitive ability with age was nuanced, with some differences with age that were associated with poorer cognitive outcomes, but other reorganizations that were associated with spared cognitive ability. These changes included strengthened local intrahemispheric connectivity and increased nodal efficiency of the ventral occipital-temporal stream, nucleus accumbens, and hippocampus for older adults, and widespread local efficiency primarily for middle-aged individuals.

We utilized network neuroscience methods to investigate why some older adults suffer tremendous cognitive decline while others are mostly spared. Past functional research found that older adults with spared cognitive ability have better local short-range information processing while global long-range processing is less efficient. We took this research a step further to investigate whether structural connectivity reorganizes to preserve cognitive ability. We analyzed age and fluid intelligence as a function of structural connectivity and regional graph theory measures using partial least squares. Some differences with age were associated with poorer cognitive outcomes, but other reorganizations spared cognitive ability. Beneficial reorganizations included strengthened local intrahemispheric connectivity and increased nodal efficiency of focal regions for older adults, as well as widespread increased local efficiency for middle-aged individuals.

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Handling Editor: Olaf Sporns

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