Elderly misjudge what’s within reach

TEXAS A&M (US) — Older people’s inability to judge stepping and reaching distances can lead to falls and injuries, but training targeted at improving cognitive ability can help them cope.

Before an action is performed—whether to reach or walk, for example—the mind simulates the action ahead of time and gives an estimate of the possible outcomes or consequences.

The estimation’s accuracy develops as an individual ages and by adolescence, barring any disorder, is completely developed—but then begins to decline as we age.

The main reason for the decline, says Carl Gabbard, professor of health and kinesiology at Texas A&M University, is that theyhave a decreased ability to mentally represent action—what he calls motor imagery ability.

The research is published in the journal Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.

Motor imagery is a window for mental representation of an action without actually taking action. A comparison of the actual action to the imagined gives an idea of a person’s motor imagery ability, Gabbard says.

Compared to their younger counterparts, elderly people often underestimate their abilities, perhaps due to a decline in the ability to create internal models and mentally represent action, which involves estimating where an object is.

“With aging, the vividness or accuracy of mental imagery declines” Gabbard says, affecting day-to-day situations that require making quick decisions, calling into question whether or not an elderly person understands their capabilities enough to make sound judgment calls.

The research has implications for improving the quality of daily living for the elderly. Gabbard says with this knowledge, activities such as imagery interventions and training specifically targeted at improving cognitive ability can be designed to help train elderly people to cope with this decline in their motor imagery ability.

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