This study assessed the influence of attention division, working memory and executive function on stair ascent and descent in young and older adults. Twenty young (25.5 ± 2.1 yrs) and 20 older adults (68.4 ± 5.4 yrs) ascended and descended a 3-step staircase with no simultaneous cognitive task (single-motor task) or while performing a cognitive task (dual-task condition). The cognitive task involved either 1) recalling a word list of the subject's word-span minus 2 words (SPAN-2) to assess the attention division effect, 2) a word list of subject's word-span (SPAN-O) to assess the working memory effect, or 3) recalling in alphabetical order, a word list of the subject's word-span (SPAN-A) to assess the executive function effect. Word-span corresponds to the longest string of words that can be recalled correctly. The duration of ascent and descent of stairs was used to assess the cognitive-motor interaction.
Stair ascent and descent duration did not differ between age groups for the single-motor task, and was similar between single-motor task and SPAN-2 in both groups (p > 0.05). In contrast, stair ascent and descent duration increased with SPAN-O compared with SPAN-2 for both groups (p < 0.01). Stair ascent (p = 0.017) and descent (p = 0.008) were longer in SPAN-A than SPAN-O only in older adults.
Healthy aging was not associated with a decrease in the capacity to perform motor-cognitive dual tasks that involved ascending and descending of stairs when the cognitive task only required working memory. However, the decrease in dual-task performance involving executive functioning may reflect a subclinical cognitive decline in healthy older adults.