Document Type




Format of Original

14 p.

Publication Date



American Physiological Society

Source Publication

Journal of Applied Physiology

Source ISSN



Age-related changes in the basic functional unit of the neuromuscular system, the motor unit, and its neural inputs have a profound effect on motor function, especially among the expanding number of old (older than ∼60 yr) and very old (older than ∼80 yr) adults. This review presents evidence that age-related changes in motor unit morphology and properties lead to impaired motor performance that includes 1) reduced maximal strength and power, slower contractile velocity, and increased fatigability; and 2) increased variability during and between motor tasks, including decreased force steadiness and increased variability of contraction velocity and torque over repeat contractions. The age-related increase in variability of motor performance with aging appears to involve reduced and more variable synaptic inputs that drive motor neuron activation, fewer and larger motor units, less stable neuromuscular junctions, lower and more variable motor unit action potential discharge rates, and smaller and slower skeletal muscle fibers that coexpress different myosin heavy chain isoforms in the muscle of older adults. Physical activity may modify motor unit properties and function in old men and women, although the effects on variability of motor performance are largely unknown. Many studies are of cross-sectional design, so there is a tremendous opportunity to perform high-impact and longitudinal studies along the continuum of aging that determine 1) the influence and cause of the increased variability with aging on functional performance tasks, and 2) whether lifestyle factors such as physical exercise can minimize this age-related variability in motor performance in the rapidly expanding numbers of very old adults.


Accepted version. Journal of Applied Physiology, Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2016): 982-995. DOI. © 2016 The American Physiological Society. Used with permission.