Are age-related impairments in change-in-support balance reactions dependent on the method of balance perturbation?

Avril Mansfield, Brian E Maki
Journal of Biomechanics 2009 May 29, 42 (8): 1023-31
Rapid "change-in-support" (stepping or grasping) balance-recovery reactions play a critical role in preventing falls. Studies investigating age-related impairments in these reactions using differing perturbation methods have shown contradictory results. The discrepancies could be due to the different mechanical and sensory stimuli provided by the different perturbation methods, but could also be due to other confounding factors (e.g. differences in perturbation predictability). This study compared two commonly used perturbation methods: weight-drop cable-pulls (CPs) and motor-driven surface-translations (STs). For each perturbation method, effects of aging on the change-in-support reactions were established by comparing 10 young (22-28 years) and 30 older (64-79 years) adults, using large unpredictable multi-directional perturbations similar to those used in previous studies showing age-related differences. Age-related differences in the pattern and spatio-temporal features of the limb movements were examined for stepping and grasping reactions evoked by antero-posterior perturbation of stance, as well as stepping reactions evoked by lateral perturbations delivered while subjects walked "in-place". Although age-group effects were almost always more pronounced for ST perturbations, the direction of the effect was always the same for both perturbation methods; hence, the perturbation-dependent differences in mechanical and sensory stimuli did not seem to be a critical factor. Perturbation waveform appeared to be a more important factor. For the perturbation methods used here, the ST perturbations were more destabilising than the CP perturbations (leading to a more rapid rise in perturbatory ankle-torque and greater centre-of-mass motion prior to the onset of the postural reaction), and were consequently more effective in revealing age-related deficiencies.

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