Attentional costs of walking are not affected by variations in lateral balance demands in young and older adults

M. Mazaheri, M. Roerdink, J. Duysens, P.J. Beek, C.E. Peper

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Increased attentional costs of walking in older adults have been attributed to age-related changes in visuomotor and/or balance control of walking. The present experiment was conducted to examine the hypothesis that attentional costs of walking vary with lateral balance demands during walking in young and older adults. Twenty young and twenty older adults walked on a treadmill at their preferred walking speed under five conditions: unconstrained normal walking, walking on projected visual lines corresponding to either the participant's preferred step width or 50% thereof (i.e. increased balance demand), and walking within low- and high-stiffness lateral stabilization frames (i.e. lower balance demands). Attentional costs were assessed using a probe reaction-time task during these five walking conditions, normalized to baseline performance as obtained during sitting. Both imposed step-width conditions were more attentionally demanding than the three other conditions, in the absence of any other significant differences between conditions. These effects were similar in the two groups. The results indicate that the attentional costs of walking were, in contrast to what has been postulated previously, not influenced by lateral balance demands. The observed difference in attentional costs between normal walking and both visual lines conditions suggests that visuomotor control processes, rather than balance control, strongly affect the attentional costs of walking. A tentative explanation of these results may be that visuomotor control processes are mainly governed by attention-demanding cortical processes, whereas balance is regulated predominantly subcortically.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)126-131
Number of pages6
JournalGait and Posture
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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