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JOURNAL ARTICLE

Inefficient postural responses to unexpected slips during walking in older adults

P F Tang, M H Woollacott
Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 1998, 53 (6): M471-80
9823752

BACKGROUND: Slips account for a high percentage of falls and subsequent injuries in community-dwelling older adults but not in young adults. This phenomenon suggests that although active and healthy older adults preserve a mobility level comparable to that of young adults, these older adults may have difficulty generating efficient reactive postural responses when they slip. This study tested the hypothesis that active and healthy older adults use a less effective reactive balance strategy than young adults when experiencing an unexpected forward slip occurring at heel strike during walking. This less effective balance strategy would be manifested by slower and smaller postural responses, altered temporal and spatial organization of the postural responses, and greater upper trunk instability after the slip.

METHODS: Thirty-three young adults (age range=19-34 yrs, mean=25+/-4 yrs) and 32 community-dwelling older adults (age range=70-87 yrs, mean=74+/-14 yrs) participated. Subjects walked across a movable forceplate which simulated a forward slip at heel strike. Surface electromyography was recorded from bilateral leg, thigh, hip, and trunk muscles. Kinematic data were collected from the right (perturbed) side of the body.

RESULTS: Although the predominant postural muscles and the activation sequence of these muscles were similar between the two age groups, the postural responses of older adults were of longer onset latencies, smaller magnitudes, and longer burst durations compared to young adults. Older adults also showed a longer coactivation duration for the ankle, knee, and trunk agonist/antagonist pairs on the perturbed side and for the knee agonist/antagonist pair on the nonperturbed side. Behaviorally, older adults became less stable after the slips. This was manifested by a higher incidence of being tripped (21 trials in older vs 5 trials in young adults) and a greater trunk hyperextension with respect to young adults. Large arm elevation was frequently used by older adults to assist in maintaining trunk stability. In an attempt to quickly reestablish the base of support after the slips, older adults had an earlier contralateral foot strike and shortened stride length.

CONCLUSION: The combination of slower onset and smaller magnitude of postural responses to slips in older adults resulted in an inefficient balance strategy. Older adults needed secondary compensatory adjustments, including a lengthened response duration and the use of the arms, to fully regain balance and prevent a fall. The shorter stride length and earlier contralateral foot strike following the slip indicate use of a more conservative balance strategy in older adults.

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