BACKGROUND: Extracellular free water within cerebral white matter tissue has been shown to increase with age and pathology, yet the cognitive consequences of free water in typical aging prior to the development of neurodegenerative disease remains unclear. Understanding the contribution of free water to cognitive function in older adults may provide important insight into the neural mechanisms of the cognitive aging process. METHODS: A diffusion-weighted MRI measure of extracellular free water as well as a commonly used diffusion MRI metric (fractional anisotropy) along nine bilateral white matter pathways were examined for their relationship with cognitive function assessed by the NIH Toolbox Cognitive Battery in 47 older adults (mean age = 74.4 years, SD = 5.4 years, range = 65-85 years). Probabilistic tractography at the 99th percentile level of probability (Tracts Constrained by Underlying Anatomy; TRACULA) was utilized to produce the pathways on which microstructural characteristics were overlaid and examined for their contribution to cognitive function independent of age, education, and gender. RESULTS: When examining the 99th percentile probability core white matter pathway derived from TRACULA, poorer fluid cognitive ability was related to higher mean free water values across the angular and cingulum bundles of the cingulate gyrus, as well as the corticospinal tract and the superior longitudinal fasciculus. There was no relationship between cognition and mean FA or free water-adjusted FA across the 99th percentile core white matter pathway. Crystallized cognitive ability was not associated with any of the diffusion measures. When examining cognitive domains comprising the NIH Toolbox Fluid Cognition index relationships with these white matter pathways, mean free water demonstrated strong hemispheric and functional specificity for cognitive performance, whereas mean FA was not related to age or cognition across the 99th percentile pathway. CONCLUSIONS: Extracellular free water within white matter appears to increase with normal aging, and higher values are associated with significantly lower fluid but not crystallized cognitive functions. When using TRACULA to estimate the core of a white matter pathway, a higher degree of free water appears to be highly specific to the pathways associated with memory, working memory, and speeded decision-making performance, whereas no such relationship existed with FA. These data suggest that free water may play an important role in the cognitive aging process, and may serve as a stronger and more specific indicator of early cognitive decline than traditional diffusion MRI measures, such as FA.