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  • Walking Speed of Elderly

    Hello Biomekkers,

    I agree with Margrit Meiers of Sherbrooke: Slowing of walking speed
    upon ageing is a multi-faceted phenomenon, and concentration on the state
    of the lower limb joints alone is not going to provide the full
    picture. Walking is of course an incredibly complex motion with
    great involvement of the cerebellum and the semi-circular canals of
    the ear. Furthermore unconscious arm motion takes place in order to
    provide a properly balanced action, and the state of the spine may be
    important.

    The elderly certainly find it more difficult to retain their balance, and this seems
    to be related to otolithic and proprioceptive function. (If anyone out there
    conducted the classic standing tests on a force plate, please write
    in!) Furthermore there is an extreme awareness in the UK of the
    possible consequences of femoral head fractures, so that there is
    considerable fear of tripping over uneven paving stones and slipping
    on ice, which can be very difficult to see. (Even the role of deteriorating eyesight
    cannot be ruled out!)

    Fibrosis and calcification of the intervertebral disks greatly decrease its
    flexibility, and the spine usually ends in a slightly "stooped forward" position.
    This brings the centre of gravity forward with respect to the hips,
    and naturally makes it more difficult for afflicted individuals to
    control their balance - hence they would walk more slowly.

    Furthermore an interplay between loss of lumbar lordosis and the
    role of the iliopsoas muscle bundle seems likely. Movement of
    this region of the spine with respect to the hips would afford
    iliopsoas less distance through which to act, which suggests that any
    role it exercises in controlling the relative position of the trunk and limbs
    would be compromised, exacerbating balance.

    I know that Dr James Smeathers (Queensland Univ of Technology, Oz) showed
    that the vibration damping characteristics of the spine vary considerably with
    its state. (Impulsive loads travel more sharply through spines
    with calcified and calcifying intervertebral disks, to the base
    of the skull, presumably exercising a deleterious effect on spinal
    joints.) Thus slow walking might have a protective function in this
    regard.

    What part/s of the gait cycle is/are in fact slowed, and are heel strike and
    toe-off forces reduced in the elderly when normalised against
    bodyweight?

    Further, does anyone have data connecting walking speeds to diagnosed
    conditions of the inner ear? (Send replies to the biomech group.)

    Thank you.

    Mark W Swanepoel
    University of the Witwatersrand
    South Africa

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