Decreased automaticity contributes to dual task decrements in older compared to younger adults


Purpose To contrast older and younger adults’ prefrontal cortex (PFC) neural activity (through changes in oxygenated hemoglobin) during single and dual tasks, and to compare decrements in task performance. Methods Changes in oxygenated hemoglobin of dorsolateral PFC were monitored using functional near-infrared spectroscopy during single tasks of spelling backwards (cognitive task) and 30 m preferred paced walk; and a dual task combining both. Gait velocity was measured by a pressure sensitive mat. Results Twenty sex-matched younger (27.6 ± 3.5 years) and 17 older adults (71.2 ± 4.9 years) were recruited. The left PFC oxygenated hemoglobin decreased from start (1st quintile) to the end (5th quintile) of the walking task in younger adults ( – 0.03 ± 0.03 to – 0.72 ± 0.20 µM; p textless .05) unlike the non-significant change in older adults (0.03 ± 0.06 to – 0.41 ± 0.32 µM, p textgreater .05). Overall, oxygenation increased bilaterally during dual versus single walk task in older adults (Left PFC: 0.22 ± 0.16 vs. – 0.23 ± 0.21 µM, respectively; Right PFC: 0.17 ± 0.18 vs. – 0.33 ± 0.22 µM, respectively), but only in right PFC in younger adults ( – 0.02 ± 0.15 vs. – 0.47 ± 0.13 µM). Older adults exhibited lower velocity during the dual task compared to younger adults (1.03 ± 0.16 vs. 1.20 ± 0.17 m/s, respectively). Older age was associated with dual task cost on velocity during walking after adjusting for confounding variables. Conclusions Age-related cognitive decline in older adults may increase neural activity for cognitive tasks and diminish walking automaticity that may lead to decrements during dual tasking; the greater PFC increases in the oxygenated hemoglobin and lower velocity may be due to increased cognitive load and limited attentional resources.

European Journal of Applied Physiology