Research Shows Aging Affects Ability to Mentally Represent Action

Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: January 26, 2011

Courtesy University Marketing and Communications Injuries from falls and other accidents among the aging can often be attributed to a decline in ability to mentally estimate and anticipate stepping and reaching distances, according to research conducted by a Texas A&M University-led research team.

In research results published in Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Professor Carl Gabbard, director of the Texas A&M Motor Development Laboratory, studied the possible effects of advanced age on ability to mentally represent action. He and his team focused on "estimation of reachability" — whether an object is within or out of reach.

Gabbard, who has studied growth and motor skills development for more than 20 years, explains that before actions are performed — whether to reach or walk, for example — the mind simulates the action ahead of time and gives an estimate of the possible outcomes or consequences.

The accuracy of this estimation develops as an individual ages and by adolescence, barring any disorder, is completely developed, Gabbard observes. In older people, this ability to estimate their capabilities or predict the outcome of an action has been shown to decline.

They tend to over- or underestimate, but mostly, they overestimate what they can or cannot do, Gabbard observes. This is evident in their many falls and injuries, the Texas A&M researcher says.

Gabbard says that the main reason for this decline in elderly people's ability to make accurate predictions of an intended action is that they have a decreased ability to mentally represent action — a decline in their motor imagery ability. Motor imagery is a window for mental representation of an action without actually taking action.

A comparison of the actual action to the imagined gives an idea of a person's motor imagery ability, Gabbard explains. The research shows that compared to their younger counterparts, elderly people often underestimated their abilities.

Gabbard notes that this can be associated with a decline in the ability to "create internal models and mentally represent action," a problem speculated to be caused by a decline in "parietal cortex function" — which involves in estimating where an object is.

"With aging, the vividness or accuracy of mental imagery declines," adds Gabbard, whose lab is part of the Department of Health and Kinesiology in the College of Education and Human Development.

Gabbard says the Texas A&M study asserts that aging affects an individual's ability to mentally predict or estimate actions, particularly actions involving reaching.

Many day –to- day situations require making quick decisions, he adds, and the question now is: Do the elderly understand their capabilities enough to make sound judgment calls? Under- or overestimating distance of objects or its reachability can lead to serious falls and injuries, Gabbard concludes.

The research has implications for improving the quality of daily living for the elderly. Gabbard says with this knowledge, activities such as imagery interventions and training specifically targeted at improving cognitive ability can be designed to help train elderly people to cope with this decline in their motor imagery ability.