Exercise Science Researcher Studies How Age Affects Upper-Body Motion and Balance

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts exercise science Professor Richard E.A.Van Emmerik is conducting research into how aging changes upper-body motion and the ability to maintain balance while walking. The study is funded by a three-year $209,804 grant from the private, non-profit Whitaker Foundation. The research could have a major impact on efforts to reduce the risk of injury from falling among the elderly, says Van Emmerik.

Most previous research on walking has focused on the legs and lower body, Van Emmerik notes. This new study will examine age-related changes in the upper half of the body. He also plans to develop models for how people get information about the environment around them as they walk. According to Van Emmerik, when people walk they gather and process visual and auditory cues, and neural information from muscles, especially in the legs. They also perceive whether they are maintaining balance.

As people age, however, they tend to experience more stiffness in the upper body, arms, and neck, and that can limit the ability to walk in stable fashion. As those changes occur, Van Emmerik says, people adjust by taking shorter steps and moving more slowly. In order to determine how upper-body motion changes over time, he and his fellow researchers will look at several different age groups and measure the degree of mobility and balance in each group.

Van Emmerik has developed a system that uses small sensors attached to the arms, shoulders, and upper body that measure the range of movement as a person walks. Using the exercise science department''s motor control laboratory, Van Emmerik will gather the basic data about upper-body motion and balance for each age group.

Van Emmerik says this new research fits in with his interest in the loss of balance caused by such factors as Parkinson''s disease and strokes. He will be conducting the study in collaboration with Robert Krotkov, emeritus UMass professor of physics, Professor Li Li from Louisiana State University, and professors Robert Wagenaar and Jim Collins of Boston University.

The Virginia-based Whitaker Foundation was created in 1975. It awards research grants and offers programs dedicated to biomedical and engineering studies.