Visual-spatial attention and falls risk in seniors: Do fallers show impairments in reflexive orienting?

Seniors who fall and sustain injuries or worse, injury-related deaths, represent a major health concern. Approximately one-third of seniors over the age of 65 experience one or more falls per year, 20 percent of which require medical attention. In Canada, falls result in over $2.4 billion annually in direct health care costs. A growing body of research suggests that cognitive factors, such as visual-spatial attention, play a major role in a person's risk for falling.

In an earlier study, Lindsay Nagamatsu found that seniors who are prone to falling (fallers), may be less likely or slower to notice hazards while navigating within their environment. In other words, fallers appear to have a narrowed focus of attention compared to non-fallers. This may cause them to overlook hazards or obstacles and prevent them from safely navigating the immediate environment, and avoid falling. Failing to notice a step or a curb, for example, may lead to a fall.

In this, her second, follow-up study, Ms. Nagamatsu will determine whether other aspects of attention are also related to falls. Her research focuses on examining automatic attention in senior fallers through a series of carefully designed experiments. Identifying the causes of falls in seniors is important because success will guide strategic interventions to prevent falls and consequently reduce individuals' injuries and societal health care costs. The results of this study could also be applied to develop novel risk screening strategies for fallers.