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Frontiers Media, S.A.

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Frontiers in Physiology

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Motor performance and cognitive function both decline with aging. Older adults for example are usually less steady for a constant-force task than young adults when performing low-intensity contractions with limb muscles. Healthy older adults can also show varying degrees of cognitive decline, particularly in executive function skills. It is not known, however, whether age-related changes in steadiness of low-force tasks and cognitive function are independent of one another. In this study, we determined if executive function skills in aging are associated with the steadiness during a low-force muscle contraction performed with and without the imposition of a cognitive challenge. We recruited 60 older adults (60–85 years old, 34 women, 26 men) and 48 young adults (19–30 years old, 24 women, 24 men) to perform elbow flexor muscle contractions at 5% of maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) force in the presence and absence of a difficult mental-math task (counting backward by 13 from a four-digit number). Force steadiness was quantified as the coefficient of variation (CV) of force and executive function was estimated with the Trail-making Test part A and B. The cognitive challenge increased the CV of force (i.e., decreased force steadiness) with greater changes in older adults than young adults (5.2 vs. 1.3%, respectively, cognitive challenge × age: P < 0.001). Older adults were 35% slower in both parts A and B of the Trail-making Test (P < 0.001), and to eliminate the effects of age and education on this variable, all further analyses were performed with the age-corrected z-scores for each individual using established normative values. Hierarchical regression models indicated that decreased force steadiness during a cognitive challenge trial was in part, explained by the performance in the Trail-making Test part A and B in older (r = 0.53 and 0.50, respectively, P < 0.05), but not in young adults (P > 0.05). Thus, healthy community-dwelling older adults, who have poorer executive function skills, exhibit reduced force steadiness during tasks when also required to perform a high cognitive demand task, and are likely at risk of reduced capacity to perform daily activities that involve cognitively challenging motor tasks.


Published version. Frontiers in Physiology, Vol.9, No 1316 (October 2, 2019). DOI. © 2018 Pereira, Schlinder-Delap, Nielson and Hunter. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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