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Gerontology. 2005 Mar-Apr;51(2):94-107.

Influence of elderly executive cognitive function on attention in the lower visual field during step initiation.

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  • 1Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Doctoral Program in Physical Therapy, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. 55455, USA.



There is a well-established relationship between poor executive cognitive abilities and elderly fall risk, but the precise mechanism underlying this relationship is unknown. Older persons frequently fall or trip on objects below eye level, and it was hypothesized that the pathological mechanism linking low executive function and fall risk is a selective impairment in the resolution of visual attention in the lower visual fields.


To determine if normally sighted older persons living in the community with deficits in executive cognitive abilities have a reduced resolution of visual attention in the lower visual fields compared to elderly and younger subjects with high executive abilities.


Eye and head angulations were monitored as subjects fixated on a point rear-projected at eye level at the end of a 3- meter walkway. Visual stimuli were briefly presented (<300 ms) in the peripheral visual field (with and without distractors) to directly cue the selection of the right or left foot to lead a step over a foam obstacle resting at the subject's feet. No saccades were allowed until the stimulus was extinguished, at which time a down-saccade-step sequence moved the foot over the obstacle. The resolution of visual attention (tested with gratings) and the influence of target eccentricity in the upper and lower visual fields were evaluated. The primary outcome measures were step error and obstacle contact rate, saccade occurrence after extinguished stimulus and the log of cue-saccade latency (limb-independent reaction time).


All groups experienced greater stepping errors than expected by chance when stimuli were presented in the lower versus upper visual field and with increasing eccentricity. However, the obstacle contact rate was greater, cue-saccade latency was prolonged, and fewer down-saccades were generated in the elderly group with poor executive abilities compared to those with high executive function and younger subjects.


Loss of visual attention in the lower visual fields was not unique to elderly subjects with poor executive function. However, slowed processing time and reduction in the frequency of down-saccades associated with a low level of executive function potentially account for the mechanism linking executive abilities and fall risk.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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