The purpose of this study was to determine whether elderly adults exhibit deficits in the performance of multi-joint movements. Two groups of subjects (mean ages, 68.9 and 30.1 years, respectively) participated in this experiment. Subjects performed planar arm pointing movements to various targets. One target could be achieved via elbow extension only, while the remaining 3 required both elbow extension and horizontal shoulder flexion, thus requiring coordination at the 2 joints. In contrast to the young adults, the elderly adults produced movements that became less smooth and less accurate with increasing shoulder joint contribution. The results imply a selective coordination deficit for the elderly adults. In addition, the elderly adults coactivated opposing muscles more than the young adults for the single-joint movement. However, the elderly adults reduced coactivation at both joints for the 2-joint actions, while the young adults did not. These data suggest a relationship between high coactivation levels and good performance for elderly adults. It may be more difficult for the elderly to implement high coactivation levels for multi-joint movements because of the increased energy costs and complexity of planning required in comparison to the single joint actions. Thus, to achieve motor performance, elderly persons appear to use coactivation in a manner that is fundamentally different than young adults.
R.D. Seidler is currently with the Department of Movement Science at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2214. J.L. Alberts is with the Department of Health and Performance Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332-0356. G.E. Stelmach is with the Motor Control Laboratory at Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-0404, where the experiments were conducted.