A recent study involving young adults showed that rapid perturbation-evoked reach-to-grasp balance-recovery reactions can be guided successfully with visuospatial-information (VSI) retained in memory despite: 1) a reduction in endpoint accuracy due to recall-delay (time between visual occlusion and perturbation-onset, PO) and 2) slowing of the reaction when performing a concurrent cognitive task during the recall-delay interval. The present study aimed to determine whether this capacity is compromised by effects of aging. Ten healthy older adults were tested with the previous protocol and compared with the previously-tested young adults. Reactions to recover balance by grasping a small handhold were evoked by unpredictable antero-posterior platform-translation (barriers deterred stepping reactions), while using liquid-crystal goggles to occlude vision post-PO and for varying recall-delay times (0-10s) prior to PO (the handhold was moved unpredictably to one of four locations 2s prior to vision-occlusion). Subjects also performed a spatial- or non-spatial-memory cognitive task during the delay-time in a subset of trials. Results showed that older adults had slower reactions than the young across all experimental conditions. Both age groups showed similar reduction in medio-lateral end-point accuracy when recall-delay was longest (10s), but differed in the effect of recall delay on vertical hand elevation. For both age groups, engaging in either the non-spatial or spatial-memory task had similar (slowing) effects on the arm reactions; however, the older adults also showed a dual-task interference effect (poorer cognitive-task performance) that was specific to the spatial-memory task. This provides new evidence that spatial working memory plays a role in the control of perturbation-evoked balance-recovery reactions. The delays in completing the reaction that occurred when performing either cognitive task suggest that such dual-task situations in daily life could increase risk of falling in seniors, particularly when combined with the general age-related slowing that was observed across all experimental conditions.
Cheng, K. C., Pratt, J., & Maki, B. E. (2013). Do aging and dual-tasking impair the capacity to store and retrieve visuospatial information needed to guide perturbation-evoked reach-to-grasp reactions? PLoS ONE, 8(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0079401