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A team of researchers set out to discover whether and why an older adult successfully recovers from a stumble, finding that it’s not only lower limb strength, perception of limb position but also “brain speed” or complex and simple reaction times.

The study, led by Dr. James Richardson at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Musculoskeletal Center, sought to identify relationships between complex and simple measure of reaction time and indicators of balance in seniors who experience nerve damage from diabetes (or diabetic peripheral neuropathy).

This group of people with diabetic nerve damage fall twice as often as people their age typically do. The researchers found that the ability to prevent falling after hitting a bump while walking and stay balanced were generally based on the participant’s brain processing speed.

The faster a brain can oscillate between various events and stimuli, and internal thinking clutter, the less likely a person is to fall. When an elderly person falls, “it seems likely that their brain is not keeping up with what is happening and so it is not able to quickly, and selectively, attend to a particular stimulus, such as hitting a curb,” he said.

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