TUESDAY, March 15, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Older adults would be wise to avoid chatting on cell phones while crossing the street, because new research indicates this combination more risky for that age group than for college students.
In laboratory simulations at the University of Illinois, 18 older adults aged 59 to 81 and 18 undergraduates aged 18 to 26 crossed streets of varying difficulty under three circumstances: undistracted, listening to music on an iPod, or talking on a hands-free cell phone.
Compared to the younger adults, the older group had far more difficulty crossing when walking while distracted by another task, with the most pronounced impairment occurring during cell phone conversations.
The study is published in the March 16 issue of Psychology and Aging.
"If you asked us before the study if we would see a difference in age-related effects, we would have said it was highly likely," said study author Mark Neider, a postdoctoral associate at Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Older adults showed lots of dual-task impairment," Neider added. "As we age, we aren't able to do these tasks together as well."
Previous research found younger adults showed similar performance detriments, Neider noted, but under much more challenging street-crossing conditions.
In this study, crossing difficulty was varied by changing the gap distance between simulated vehicles, with the smaller gap creating more challenging conditions. The "roadway" was comprised of two lanes of traffic, and all cars traveled at a speed of 33 miles per hour. Participants walked on a treadmill that was synchronized with three viewing screens and a floor.
Notably, older adults were much more likely to fail at crossing the road -- defined as either being hit by a car or failing to cross before a 30-second timeout -- as the younger group, the study said. This resulted mainly from the older participants' hesitancy to begin crossing the road -- taking twice as long as the students -- while also immersed in a cell phone conversation.
"What's important here is, people generally think of walking as an automatic activity," he said. "When you start to introduce competing tasks, we know both young and older people [don't do as well]."
Jonathan King, program director of the National Institute on Aging's division of behavioral and social research, said the study was novel because not many "attempt to get the nuts and bolts of everyday functioning like this."
King said the fact that seniors often "timed out" and failed to cross the street in the 30 seconds allotted is actually a good sign.
"That's important because it suggests some degree of safety monitoring in these older adults to know what's going on," he said. "Multitasking is a skill that definitely seems to be impacted more by aging than other skills. So I think that's at the heart of it."
Neider said future research will examine the reasons older people need more time to step off the curb, along with other cognitive mechanisms that influence their decision-making in multitasking situations.
"Everyone needs to exercise some caution when they try to do this," he said. "Older adults should probably exercise even more."
Learn more about cell phone safety at the National Consumer Advocacy Commission.