Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggest that measuring the brain activity of healthy adults while they are walking and talking may help predict their risk of falling.

Their study, published recently in Neurology, involved 166 older adults, average age 75, enrolled in the ongoing Central Control of Mobility in Aging Study at Einstein. All participants were healthy, with no signs of dementia, disability, or problems with walking.

The participants were asked to perform three different tasks: walking at a normal pace, reciting alternate letters of the alphabet while standing, and walking at a normal pace while simultaneously reciting alternating letters of the alphabet.

“Previous studies have shown that when older people perform cognitively demanding tasks, their brains are required to become more active to handle the challenge,” says lead author Joe Verghese, MBBS, director of the division of cognitive & motor aging at Einstein and Montefiore Health System (and director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for the Aging Brain, in a media release from Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“In our study, we asked older people to perform such a task—in this case, talking while walking—and found that people needing the most brain activity to carry it out were more likely than others to fall later on,” he adds.

In the study, Verghese and his team measured the participants’ walking speed and “letter-reciting” speed. In addition, they assessed the participants’ brain activity during all three tasks using functional near-infrared spectroscopy—a noninvasive brain-imaging technology in which participants wear sensors over their foreheads that measure changes in oxygen levels in the front of their brains.

After the testing, researchers contacted participants every 2 to 3 months over the following 4 years to find out whether they had fallen. Seventy-one study participants reported a total of 116 falls during that time, and 34 of those people fell more than once, the release notes.

After reviewing the data, the researchers suggest that neither the speed at which the participants walked nor the speed at which they named alphabet letters predicted their fall risk.

However, when they reviewed the participants’ brain data from when they were walking and talking, they found that elevated levels of brain activity during this task signaled an increased risk of falling in the future: each incremental increase in brain activity was associated with a 32% increased risk of falls.

This relationship between increased brain activity and falling risk persisted even after researchers accounted for slow walking speed, frailty, previous falls and other factors that could affect a person’s risk of falling, per the release.

“Our findings suggest that changes in brain activity that influence walking may be present long before people exhibit any sign of walking difficulty. Now we need to find the underlying biological mechanisms or diseases that may be altering brain activity and, if possible, correct them to help prevent falls,” Verghese states.

[Source(s): Albert Einstein College of Medicine, PR Newswire]