Research Alert

Background: Cognitive testing in large population surveys is frequently used to describe cognitive aging and determine the incidence rates, risk factors, and long-term trajectories of the development of cognitive impairment. As these surveys are increasingly administered on internet-based platforms, web-based and self-administered cognitive testing calls for close investigation.

Objective: Web-based, self-administered versions of 2 age-sensitive cognitive tests, the Stop and Go Switching Task for executive functioning and the Figure Identification test for perceptual speed, were developed and administered to adult participants in the Understanding America Study. We examined differences in cognitive test scores across internet device types and the extent to which the scores were associated with self-reported distractions in everyday environments in which the participants took the tests. In addition, national norms were provided for the US population.

Methods: Data were collected from a probability-based internet panel representative of the US adult population—the Understanding America Study. Participants with access to both a keyboard- and mouse-based device and a touch screen–based device were asked to complete the cognitive tests twice in a randomized order across device types, whereas participants with access to only 1 type of device were asked to complete the tests twice on the same device. At the end of each test, the participants answered questions about interruptions and potential distractions that occurred during the test.

Results: Of the 7410 (Stop and Go) and 7216 (Figure Identification) participants who completed the device ownership survey, 6129 (82.71% for Stop and Go) and 6717 (93.08% for Figure Identification) participants completed the first session and correctly responded to at least 70% of the trials. On average, the standardized differences across device types were small, with the absolute value of Cohen d ranging from 0.05 (for the switch score in Stop and Go and the Figure Identification score) to 0.13 (for the nonswitch score in Stop and Go). Poorer cognitive performance was moderately associated with older age (the absolute value of r ranged from 0.32 to 0.61), and this relationship was comparable across device types (the absolute value of Cohen q ranged from 0.01 to 0.17). Approximately 12.72% (779/6123 for Stop and Go) and 12.32% (828/6721 for Figure Identification) of participants were interrupted during the test. Interruptions predicted poorer cognitive performance (P<.01 for all scores). Specific distractions (eg, watching television and listening to music) were inconsistently related to cognitive performance. National norms, calculated as weighted average scores using sampling weights, suggested poorer cognitive performance as age increased.

Conclusions: Cognitive scores assessed by self-administered web-based tests were sensitive to age differences in cognitive performance and were comparable across the keyboard- and touch screen–based internet devices. Distraction in everyday environments, especially when interrupted during the test, may result in a nontrivial bias in cognitive testing.

Journal Link: Journal of Medical Internet Research

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Journal of Medical Internet Research