Trunk sway measures of postural stability during clinical balance tests: effects of age

J Gill, J H Allum, M G Carpenter, M Held-Ziolkowska, A L Adkin, F Honegger, K Pierchala
Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 2001, 56 (7): M438-47

BACKGROUND: The major disadvantage of current clinical tests that screen for balance disorders is a reliance on an examiner's subjective assessment of equilibrium control. To overcome this disadvantage we investigated, using quantified measures of trunk sway, age-related differences of normal subjects for commonly used clinical balance tests.

METHODS: Three age groups were tested: young (15-25 years; n = 48), middle-aged (45-55 years; n = 50) and elderly (65-75 years; n = 49). Each subject performed a series of fourteen tasks similar to those included in the Tinetti and Clinical Test of Sensory Interaction in Balance protocols. The test battery comprised stance and gait tasks performed under normal, altered visual (eyes closed), and altered proprioceptive (foam support surface) conditions. Quantification of trunk sway was performed using a system that measured trunk angular velocity and position in the roll (lateral) and pitch (fore-aft) planes at the level of the lower back. Ranges of sway amplitude and velocity were examined for age-differences with ANOVA techniques.

RESULTS: A comparison between age groups showed several differences. Elderly subjects were distinguished from both middle-aged and young subjects by the range of trunk angular sway and angular velocity because both were greater in roll and pitch planes for stance and stance-related tasks (tandem walking). The most significant age group differences (F = 30, p <.0001) were found for standing on one leg on a normal floor or on a foam support surface with eyes open. Next in significance was walking eight tandem steps on a normal floor (F = 13, p <.0001). For gait tasks, such as walking five steps while rotating or pitching the head or with eyes closed, pitch and roll velocity ranges were influenced by age with middle-aged subjects showing the smallest ranges followed by elderly subjects and then young subjects (F = 12, p <.0001). Walking over a set of low barriers also yielded significant differences between age groups for duration and angular sway. In contrast, task duration was the only variable significantly influenced when walking up and down a set of stairs. An interesting finding for all tasks was the different spread of values for each population. Population distributions were skewed for all ages and broadened with age.

CONCLUSIONS: Accurate measurement of trunk angular sway during stance and gait tasks provides a simple way of reliably measuring changes in balance stability with age and could prove useful when screening for balance disorders of those prone to fall.

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