Karen Z. H. Li, Halina Bruce, and Rachel Downey
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Please check back later for the full article.
Research on the interplay of cognition and mobility in old age is inherently multidisciplinary, informed by findings from lifespan developmental psychology, kinesiology, cognitive neuroscience, and rehabilitation sciences. Early observational work from the field of cognitive aging revealed strong connections between sensory and sensorimotor performance with measures of intellectual functioning. Subsequent observational results have revealed more specific links between measures of cognitive control and gait quality. Convergent evidence for the interdependence of cognition and mobility is seen in patient studies, wherein cognitive impairment is associated with increased frequency and risk of falling. Even in cross-sectional studies involving healthy young and older adults, the effects of aging on postural control and gait are commonly exacerbated when participants perform a motor task with a concurrent cognitive load. This motor-cognitive, dual-task method, borrowed from cognitive psychology, assumes that cognitive and motor domains compete for common capacity, and that older adults recruit more cognitive capacity than young adults to support gait and posture.
With the increasing availability of neuroimaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), observational studies have revealed associations between measures of mobility (e.g., gait velocity and postural control) and measures of brain health (e.g., gray matter volumes, cortical thickness, white matter integrity, and functional connectivity). Notably, the cortical regions and circuits most often associated with aging and mobility also appear to subserve high-level cognitive functions such as executive control, attention, and working memory. Recent innovations in portable functional neuroimaging have allowed for the examination of neural functioning during real-time walking, often in conjunction with detailed spatiotemporal measures of gait. Finally, another scientific strategy that addresses the interdependence of cognitive and motor processes in old age is cognitive remediation. Borrowing again from cognitive psychology, intervention studies involving cognitive training have yielded promising improvements in balance, walking, and overall mobility status in healthy older adults, and those with age-related neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease.