Walking and Talking: Why Oldsters Shouldn’t Try It

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We know it’s a really bad idea to talk or text while you’re driving, but what about walking and talking?

New research suggests that gabbing on a cell phone may not be such as good idea while you’re crossing the street, especially for older people.

In a clever experiment, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign simulated a busy crosswalk without a traffic light by connecting a treadmill to a virtual reality screen that displayed the intersection along with cars passing through the walk. Two groups of participants, one recruited from the undergraduate population and aged 18 to 25 years, and another pulled from the community and aged 59 to 81 years, walked across the intersection three times. The first time, they weren’t distracted and only needed to concentrate on navigating on-coming traffic, which was approaching from both directions on the virtual two-way street. The second time, the participants were listening to music through headphones, and the final time, they crossed the street while talking on a cell phone with a researcher.

Despite evidence that performance during multi-tasking drops as the brain has to divide its attention, the researchers found that the younger subjects did not show any significant differences in the time it took them to navigate traffic whether they were undistracted, listening to music, or talking on the phone. The younger volunteers also didn’t seem to be affected when the scientists sped up the time at which the cars approached the intersection by shortening the bumper-to-bumper distance between cars. The data suggest that the brain’s ability to divide attention remains flexible and broad enough at younger ages to compensate for tasks such as walking and talking.

Among the older participants, however, the team found that talking on the phone caused them to hesitate longer before stepping onto the virtual crosswalk, which prevented them from crossing successfully in the allotted 30 second time period. Compared to when they crossed without any distractions, they were nearly four times as likely to time out when talking on a phone. The older participants also spent about twice as much time on the sidewalk as the younger subjects did before crossing. The findings support the idea that multi-tasking abilities decline with age, as the brain becomes less adept at juggling simultaneous tasks and maintaining peak performance for each one.

The results, say the authors, also highlight the dangers that distractions such as talking on a cell phone can pose, even when performing a simple task such as walking. If it can affect walking, just imagine how much a cell phone conversation, or texting, can impair judgment during driving.