For more and more people, ageing and clumsiness seem to go hand in hand – difficulties when handling a plate, fumbling with keys or even dialing a phone – new research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that some of these day-to-day reaching-and-grasping difficulties may be be caused by changes in the mental frame used by older adults to visualize nearby objects.

wine glass spill

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“Reference frames help determine what in our environment we will pay attention to and they can affect how we interact with objects, such as controls for a car or dishes on a table,” said study co-author Richard Abrams, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science, by lead author, Emily K. Bloesch, PhD and two other colleagues.

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“Our study shows that in addition to physical and perceptual changes, difficulties in interaction may also be caused by changes in how older adults mentally represent the objects near them.”

Whenever younger people grasp for something, as researchers explain, they are more focused on their path of action, whereas older people tend to give more attention to the objects that are closer to them, even if they are not of interest. This is what cause a deconcentration and results in the clumsiness reported by so many.

“We showed in our paper that older adults do not use an “action centered” reference frame. Instead they use a “body centered” one,” Bloesch said. “As a result, they might be less able to effectively adjust their reaching movements to avoid obstacles — and that’s why they might knock over the wine glass after reaching for the salt shaker.”

As the population in the US and western Europe ages more and more, this discovery gains more and more significance. An estimated 60-to-70 percent of the elderly population reports having clumsiness issues regarding daily, even routine activities.

Via Washington University in Saint Louis.