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BEACON Senior News

New study explains why older adults move more slowly

It’s one of the inescapable realities of aging: The older we get, the slower we tend to move—whether we’re walking around the block or just reaching for the remote control.

A new study led by University of Colorado Boulder engineers helps explain why.

The research is one of the first studies to experimentally tease apart the competing reasons why people over age 65 might not be as quick on their feet as they used to be. The group reported that older adults may move slower, at least in part, because it costs them more energy than younger people—perhaps not too shocking for anyone who’s woken up tired the morning after an active day.

The findings could one day give doctors new tools for diagnosing a range of illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and even depression and schizophrenia, said study co-author Alaa Ahmed. 

“Why we move the way we do, from eye movements to reaching, walking and talking, is a window into aging and Parkinson’s,” said Ahmed, professor in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We’re trying to understand the neural basis of that.”

She and her colleagues published their findings this month in the journal JNeurosci.

For the study, the group asked subjects age 18 to 35 and 66 to 87 to complete a deceptively simple task: to reach for a target on a screen, a bit like playing a video game on a Nintendo Wii. That’s when a contrast between the two groups of people began to emerge.

When the 18- to 35-year-olds and 66- to 87-year-olds knew they would be receiving a reward for their efforts, both groups arrived at their targets sooner—roughly 4% to 5% sooner over trials without the reward. But they also achieved that goal in different ways.

The younger adults, by and large, moved their arms faster toward the reward. The older adults, in contrast, mainly improved their reaction times, beginning their reaches about 17 milliseconds sooner, on average.

When the team added an 8-pound weight to the robotic arm for the younger subjects, those differences vanished.

“The brain seems to be able to detect very small changes in how much energy the body is using and adjusts our movements accordingly,” said Robert Courter, a co-lead author of the study who earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from CU Boulder in 2023. “Even when moving with just a few extra pounds, reacting quicker became the energetically cheaper option to get to the reward, so the young adults imitated the older adults and did just that.”

To contact Ahmed or to find out more about this study, email [email protected].

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