Background: Development of clinical neurological assessments aimed at separating normal from abnormal capabilities requires a comprehensive understanding of how basic neurological functions change (or do not change) with increasing age across adulthood. In the case of proprioception, the research literature has failed to conclusively determine whether or not position sense in the upper limb deteriorates in elderly individuals. The present study was conducted a) to quantify whether upper limb position sense deteriorates with increasing age, and b) to generate a set of normative data that can be used for future comparisons with clinical populations.
Methods: We examined position sense in 209 healthy males and females between the ages of 18 and 90 using a robotic arm position-matching task that is both objective and reliable. In this task, the robot moved an arm to one of nine positions and subjects attempted to mirror-match that position with the opposite limb. Measures of position sense were recorded by the robotic apparatus in hand-and joint-based coordinates, and linear regressions were used to quantify age-related changes and percentile boundaries of normal behaviour. For clinical comparisons, we also examined influences of sex (male versus female) and test-hand (dominant versus non-dominant) on all measures of position sense.
Results: Analyses of hand-based parameters identified several measures of position sense (Variability, Shift, Spatial Contraction, Absolute Error) with significant effects of age, sex, and test-hand. Joint-based parameters at the shoulder (Absolute Error) and elbow (Variability, Shift, Absolute Error) also exhibited significant effects of age and test-hand.
Conclusions: The present study provides strong evidence that several measures of upper extremity position sense exhibit declines with age. Furthermore, this data provides a basis for quantifying when changes in position sense are related to normal aging or alternatively, pathology.