As you get older, you get less steady on your feet. In fact, falls cause injury in one third of senior citizens—and half of all people over 80—each year; experts say this is probably underreported. Falls are the leading cause of death due to injury in older people, the leading cause of nonfatal injury, and the leading causes of hospital admissions due to trauma. It’s not just falls; older adults also frequently experience a gradual decline in fine motor control, which encompasses such skills as turning a key in a lock or making a phone call.
These symptoms are often worrisome, because they are among the early warning signs of conditions of age-related cognitive impairment, or senile dementia. While you should consult your doctor about worrying symptoms, balance and agility do decline as part of the ordinary course of aging. The parts of the body and brain responsible for agility, visual acuity, and speed simply gradually decline over the years, and you start to slow down.
The trouble, on the cognition side, appears to be what is called the attentional reference frame. That is an essential component of how your brain represents the world around you, and provides you with an internal model of where things are. This model is what your brain and body use to determine where and how to reach for things, and as you get older, the frame starts to shift.
In addition to physical and perceptual changes, difficulties in interaction may also be caused by changes in how older adults mentally represent the objects near them, said Richard Abrams, PhD, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, in a statement. Dr. Abrams was in charge of a study examining how a younger person’s reference frame, focused on the process of grasping objects, eventually transitions to a more body-centered frame in older people, with more concentration on things close to the body even if they’re not part of that process.
The country’s aging population makes this research particularly timely. As many as 70 percent of older Americans have difficulties with activities of day-to-day life that require lots of small movements, and other studies have found specific problems in making hand movements. As we learn more about what causes this difficulty and how it develops, we become better able to devise therapies and training to mitigate it, or compensate for it, allowing people to lead full lives into their golden years.