Timing paradox of stepping and falls in ageing: not so quick and quick(er) on the trigger

  • Rogers Mark W.
  • Mille Marie-Laure


Physiological and degenerative changes affecting human standing balance are major contributors to falls with ageing. During imbalance, stepping is a powerful protective action for preserving balance that may be voluntarily initiated in recognition of a balance threat, or be induced by an externally imposed mechanical or sensory perturbation. Paradoxically, with ageing and falls, initiation slowing of voluntary stepping is observed together with perturbation-induced steps that are triggered as fast as or faster than for younger adults. While age-associated changes in sensorimotor conduction, central neuronal processing and cognitive functions are linked to delayed voluntary stepping, alterations in the coupling of posture and locomotion may also prolong step triggering. It is less clear, however, how these factors may explain the accelerated triggering of induced stepping. We present a conceptual model that addresses this issue. For voluntary stepping, a disruption in the normal coupling between posture and locomotion may underlie step-triggering delays through suppression of the locomotion network based on an estimation of the evolving mechanical state conditions for stability. During induced stepping, accelerated step initiation may represent an event-triggering process whereby stepping is released according to the occurrence of a perturbation rather than to the specific sensorimotor information reflecting the evolving instability. In this case, errors in the parametric control of induced stepping and its effectiveness in stabilizing balance would be likely to occur. We further suggest that there is a residual adaptive capacity with ageing that could be exploited to improve paradoxical triggering and other changes in protective stepping to impact fall risk.