Associations between brain cortical tissue volume and cognitive function in old age are frequently interpreted as suggesting that preservation of cortical tissue is the foundation of successful cognitive aging. However, this association could also, in part, reflect a lifelong association between cognitive ability and cortical tissue. We analyzed data on 588 subjects from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 who had intelligence quotient (IQ) scores from the same cognitive test available at both 11 and 70 years of age as well as high-resolution brain magnetic resonance imaging data obtained at approximately 73 years of age. Cortical thickness was estimated at 81 924 sampling points across the cortex for each subject using an automated pipeline. Multiple regression was used to assess associations between cortical thickness and the IQ measures at 11 and 70 years. Childhood IQ accounted for more than two-third of the association between IQ at 70 years and cortical thickness measured at age 73 years. This warns against ascribing a causal interpretation to the association between cognitive ability and cortical tissue in old age based on assumptions about, and exclusive reference to, the aging process and any associated disease. Without early-life measures of cognitive ability, it would have been tempting to conclude that preservation of cortical thickness in old age is a foundation for successful cognitive aging when, instead, it is a lifelong association. This being said, results should not be construed as meaning that all studies on aging require direct measures of childhood IQ, but as suggesting that proxy measures of prior cognitive function can be useful to take into consideration.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 4 June 2013; doi:10.1038/mp.2013.64.