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Study: Multi-tasking on the street not a good idea for older people

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L. Brian Stauffer

Postdoctoral researcher and study co-author Mark Neider in the lab with the multidirectional treadmill and simulated street scene used in the multi-tasking study.

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3/16/2011 | Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor | 217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, lll. — Older adults may put themselves at risk by talking on cellphones while crossing the street, researchers report in a new study. The researchers found that adults aged 59 to 81 took significantly longer than college students to cross a simulated street while talking on a mobile phone, and their heightened cautiousness in initiating crossing did nothing to improve their safety. Older adults on cell phones also were more likely to fail to cross in the time allotted for the task.

Art Kramer
University of Illinois Beckman Institute director Art Kramer led a study that found that older adults have more difficulty than their young peers negotiating a traffic crossing while also talking on a cellphone. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The findings, from researchers at the University of Illinois, appear in the journal Psychology and Aging.

In the study, 18 undergraduate students (aged 18 to 26 years) and 18 older adults crossed simulated streets of varying difficulty while either undistracted, listening to music or conversing on a hands-free cellphone. The older adults were significantly impaired on the most challenging street-crossing tasks while also engaged in a second activity, with the most pronounced impairment occurring during cellphone conversations. The younger adults showed no impairment on dual-task performance, the researchers found.

“It should be noted that we have previously found that younger adults show similar performance decrements, but under much more challenging crossing conditions,” said lead author Mark Neider, a postdoctoral researcher who conducted the study with Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute director Art Kramer.

“Combined with our previous work, the current findings suggest that while all pedestrians should exercise caution when attempting to cross a street while conversing on a cellphone, older adults should be particularly careful,” Neider said

Editor's note: To contact Art Kramer, call 217-244-8373; e-mail a-kramer@illinois.edu. To reach Mark Neider, e-mail mneider@illinois.edu. The paper, “Walking and Talking: Dual-Task Effects on Street Crossing Behavior in Older Adults,” is available from the U. of I. News Bureau.

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