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The Interplay between Cognitive and Motor Functioning in Healthy Older Adults: Findings from Dual-Task Studies and Suggestions for Intervention

Schaefer S.a · Schumacher V.b, c
aMax Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany; bGerontopsychology, Department of Psychology, and cCenter for Gerontology, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland Gerontology 2011;57:239–246 (DOI:10.1159/000322197)


Reaching late adulthood is accompanied by losses in physical and mental resources, but lifestyle choices seem to have a considerable influence on the aging trajectory. This review deals with the interplay between cognitive and motor functioning in old age, focusing on two different lines of research, namely (a) dual-task studies requiring participants to perform a cognitive and a motor task simultaneously, and (b) intervention studies investigating whether increases in physical fitness also lead to improvements in cognitive performance. Dual-task studies indicate that healthy older adults show greater performance reductions in both domains than young adults when performing a cognitive and a motor task simultaneously. In addition, older adults often tend to protect their motor functioning at the expense of the cognitive task when the situation involves a threat to balance. This can be considered an adaptive behavior since fall-related injuries can have severe consequences. Fitness intervention studies which increased the aerobic fitness of previously sedentary older adults have demonstrated impressive performance improvements in the cognitive domain, especially for tasks involving executive control processes. These findings are interesting in light of cognitive intervention studies, which often fail to find significant transfer effects to tasks that have not been trained directly. The authors argue that future research should compare the effects of cognitive and aerobic fitness interventions in older adults, and they present a study design in which cognition and fitness are trained sequentially as well as simultaneously. Finally, methodological issues involved in this type of research and potential applications to applied settings are discussed.


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