UNMC study looks at seniors' inability to walk, talk at same time

November 26, 2013

Image with caption: Dawn Venema, Ph.D.,  (left) and Joseph Siu, Ph.D., work with a research subject as part of their study.

Dawn Venema, Ph.D., (left) and Joseph Siu, Ph.D., work with a research subject as part of their study.

As families gather for the holidays, many of us take stock of our older loved ones – are they moving a little more slowly than last year? Do they seem to slow even more when asked a question?

There is the old joke about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But there’s something to it, scientifically, said Dawn Venema, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy education at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. As a clinician, she saw it all the time.

Now she studies it.

When she was a physical therapist in the field, she worked with geriatric clientele, and with some, she noticed, “People literally couldn’t walk and talk at the same time.”

For those who were frail or had dementia, Dr. Venema said, “Their cognitive resources had to be focused on walking.” They could not afford any distraction from that basic task. Or they might fall.

When Dr. Venema joined the faculty at UNMC it seemed like a natural line of research.

She collaborated with Joseph Siu, Ph.D., who was then at the UNMC College of Public Health and is now her next-door neighbor in PT. He’s also studied dual-task costs – how it affects us when we try to do two things at once.

Like texting and driving?

“It’s the same thing,” Dr. Venema said. “As much as we like to think we can multi-task, the quality of the task suffers as we try to do more than one thing at a time.”

But even more so among older adults who have dementia. “Their dual-task cost is really great because they don’t have as much cognitive resources to draw on,” Dr. Venema said.

Drs. Venema and Siu did a study, published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy. They found that older adults doing a walking test were slowed when asked to simultaneously complete a cognitive (counting/math) task. The results were more dramatic among patients who started off with lower cognitive scores.

But, interestingly, all were able to at least attempt it. No one completely shut down, mentally or physically.

That led to a second pilot study using physical therapy combined with cognitive training among a small group with dementia.

Those given “easy” cognitive tasks improved on about half of their outcomes, but those in the “hard” cognitive-task group improved on all outcomes, and by greater margins.

So maybe there’s hope.

“Perhaps we can challenge people with dementia more than we think,” Dr. Venema said.

They aim to expand to a full study, but they need more enrollees with dementia, whose families would need to give permission. Those spots are tougher to fill.

For information about the study, call 402-559-6594. For further information on clinical trials, please call the Research Subject Advocate Office at 402-559-6941. 

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