Background: Some executive functions may be selectively impaired in normal aging over and above the general cognitive decline. Methods: We examined the performance of healthy high functioning young (n = 77) and older (n = 57) individuals on three ‘executive’ tests: conditional exclusion, abstraction, and inhibition of prepotent responses. We compared their relationships to each other and to other cognitive functions including attention, psychomotor speed and working memory. Results: Conditional exclusion was significantly more impaired than abstraction or inhibition in the elderly compared to the younger group and unlike them, showed a nonlinear relationship with age. These findings were independent of other cognitive functions. Analysis of PCET performance characteristics showed that older individuals were particularly impaired in attaining the last of the three achievable categories, were slower, and had fewer error monitoring resources compared to the younger group. Conclusions: Conditional exclusion shows an age-related pattern of impairment distinct from inhibition and abstraction. We propose that in healthy well-functioning individuals, it taps processes integrating task set establishment and shifting in context of accumulating information. It may thus be useful as a specific marker of complex cognitive functions in studies of normal cognitive aging and in early detection of cognitive dysfunction.
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