Why does older adults' balance become less stable when walking and performing a secondary task? Examination of attentional switching abilities

Gait Posture. 2012 Jan;35(1):159-63. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2011.09.001. Epub 2011 Oct 2.


Previous research using dual-task paradigms indicates balance-impaired older adults (BIOAs) are less able to flexibly shift attentional focus between a cognitive and motor task than healthy older adults (HOA). Shifting attention is a component of executive function. Task switch tests assess executive attention function. This multivariate study asked if BIOAs demonstrate greater task switching deficits than HOAs. A group of 39 HOA (65-80 years) and BIOA (65-87 years) subjects performed a visuo-spatial task switch. A sub-group of subjects performed a dual-task obstacle avoidance paradigm. All participants completed the Berg Balance Scale (BBS) and Timed Up and Go (TUG). We assessed differences by group for: (1) visuo-spatial task switch reaction times (switch/no-switch), and performance on the BBS and TUG. Our balance groups differed significantly on BBS score (p<.001) and switch reaction time (p=.032), but not the TUG. This confirmed our hypothesis that neuromuscular and executive attention function differs between these two groups. For our BIOA sub-group, gait velocity correlated negatively with performance on the switch condition (p=.036). This suggests that BIOA efficiency of attentional allocation in dual task settings should be further explored.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Executive Function*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Postural Balance / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Walking / physiology*