Background: Decreased gait speed and increased stride time, stride length, double support time, and stance time variability have consistently been associated with falling whereas step width variability has not been strongly related to falls. The purpose was to examine the linear and nonlinear associations between gait variability and fall history in older persons and to examine the influence of gait speed.
Methods: Gait characteristics and fall history were obtained in 503 older adults (mean age = 79; 61% female) participating in the Cardiovascular Health Study who could ambulate independently. Gait characteristics were recorded from two trials on a 4 meter computerized walkway at the subject's self-selected walking speed. Gait variability was calculated as the coefficient of variation. The presence of a fall in the past 12 months was determined by interview. The nonlinear association between gait variability and fall history was examined using a simple three level classification derived from the distribution of the data and from literature based cut-points. Multivariate logistic regression was used to examine the association between step width variability (extreme or moderate) and fall history stratifying by gait speed (1.0 m/s) and controlling for age and gender.
Results: Step length, stance time, and step time variability did not differ with respect to fall history (p > .33). Individuals with extreme step width variability (either low or high step width variability) were more likely to report a fall in the past year than individuals with moderate step width variability. In individuals who walked > or = 1.0 m/s (n = 281), after controlling for age, gender, and gait speed, compared to individuals with moderate step width variability individuals with either low or high step width variability were more likely to have fallen in the past year (OR and 95% CI 4.38 [1.79-10.72]). The association between step width variability and fall history was not significant in individuals who walked < 1.0 m/s (n = 224).
Conclusion: Extreme (either too little or too much) step width variability is associated with falls in the past year in older persons who walk at or near normal gait speed and not in older persons who walk slowly (< 1.0 m/s).