Cognitive and Motor Performance in Dual-Task Situations

In earlier work, we showed that older adults invest more cognitive resources into motor aspects of behavior than younger adults, presumably to attenuate the adverse effects of sensorimotor decline. Accordingly, older adults show higher dual-task costs than younger adults when a cognitive and a motor task need to be performed concurrently (for a review, see Schaefer & Schumacher, 2011). In addition to developmental influences, individual differences in task-relevant experience may also influence performance in a cognitive–motor dual-task situation.

We investigated such influences by asking middle-aged women with either a great deal or very little experience in walking in high heels to walk on a treadmill while performing a demanding working-memory task (Schaefer & Lindenberger, 2013). Each participant performed the two tasks while wearing either gym shoes or high heels. Surprisingly, neither group showed any reduction in working-memory performance when walking compared with sitting, irrespective of shoe type. However, in the walking task, high-heel expertise was associated with more flexible adjustments in movement patterns: Experts reduced the variability of time spent in the single-support phase of the gait cycle under cognitive load while wearing high heels, resulting in a more stable gait.

Projekt SensCog Kognition | Center for Lifespan Psychology
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Key References

Schaefer, S., Jagenow, D., Verrel, J., & Lindenberger, U. (2015). The influence of cognitive load and walking speed on gait regularity in children and young adults. Gait & Posture, 41, 258–262. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2014.10.013

Schaefer, S., & Lindenberger, U. (2013). Thinking while walking: Experienced high-heel walkers flexibly adjust their gait. Frontiers in Psychology, 4: 316. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00316

Schaefer, S., Schellenbach, M., Lindenberger, U., & Woollacott, M. (2015). Walking in high-risk settings: Do older adults still prioritize gait when distracted by a cognitive task? Experimental Brain Research, 233, 79–88. doi: 10.1007/s00221-014-4093-8

Schaefer, S., & Schumacher, V. (2011). The interplay between cognitive and motor functioning in healthy older adults: Findings from dual-task studies and suggestions for intervention. Gerontology, 57, 239–246. doi: 10.1159/000322197