Negotiating Varying Ground Terrain during Locomotion: Insights into the Role of Vision and the Effects of Aging
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We continually encounter different ground terrain such as slippery, compliant, uneven, rocky, and irregular terrain when walking, yet we know very little about how individuals safely negotiate this type of complex environment. Furthermore, we know little about how aging affects stability in these situations despite the increased risk of falls and fall-related injuries among older adults. Paramount to our comprehension of how individuals safely traverse challenging ground terrain is to understand how visual information is utilized as vision is the first line of defense for preparing for and/or avoiding potentially hazardous terrain or obstacles. Thus, the objective of this thesis was to provide a better understanding towards how individuals negotiate different ground terrain in the environment to maintain dynamic stability and prevent the occurrence of a fall. In particular, the role of vision and the effects of aging were investigated. Three studies focused on the role of vision while negotiating varying ground terrain while two studies examined stability across these surfaces. Two main conclusions can be drawn from the results of the three studies on the role of vision. First, regardless of age individuals fixate on highly task-relevant areas (i.e. surfaces eventually stepped on) in an on-line manner and by fixating approximately two steps ahead. Second, visual information from the lower visual field is important for negotiating varying ground terrain. This latter finding has implications for older adults who wear multi-focal glasses and suggests that these individuals should be cautious when wearing these glasses in complex environments. In terms of stability, the results suggest that young and older adults demonstrate greater instability when walking across varying unstable ground terrain compared to solid level ground. Older adults are particularly more unstable in the medial-lateral direction when negotiating the challenging terrain, which may explain the frequency of laterally directed falls and increased hip-fracture risk with advancing age. Interestingly, older adults appear more stable in the anterior-posterior direction; although, this can largely be explained by the cautious gait strategy (i.e. slower walking speed and shorter steps) adopted by these individuals. The results of the studies of my thesis provide valuable insight into how individuals safely negotiate different types of challenging ground terrain when walking. Importantly, this knowledge can serve as an initial step in attempting to reduce falling among those at risk.