Age-related changes in gait adaptability in response to unpredictable obstacles and stepping targets
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Background: A large proportion of falls in older people occur when walking. Limitations in gait adaptability might contribute to tripping; a frequently reported cause of falls in this group. Objective: To evaluate age-related changes in gait adaptability in response to obstacles or stepping targets presented at short notice, i.e.: approximately two steps ahead. Methods: Fifty older adults (aged 74 ± 7 years; 34 females) and 21 young adults (aged 26 ± 4 years; 12 females) completed 3 usual gait speed (baseline) trials. They then completed the following randomly presented gait adaptability trials: obstacle avoidance, short stepping target, long stepping target and no target/obstacle (3 trials of each). Results: Compared with the young, the older adults slowed significantly in no target/obstacle trials compared with the baseline trials. They took more steps and spent more time in double support while approaching the obstacle and stepping targets, demonstrated poorer stepping accuracy and made more stepping errors (failed to hit the stepping targets/avoid the obstacle). The older adults also reduced velocity of the two preceding steps and shortened the previous step in the long stepping target condition and in the obstacle avoidance condition. Conclusion: Compared with their younger counterparts, the older adults exhibited a more conservative adaptation strategy characterised by slow, short and multiple steps with longer time in double support. Even so, they demonstrated poorer stepping accuracy and made more stepping errors. This reduced gait adaptability may place older adults at increased risk of falling when negotiating unexpected hazards.