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Influence of step-surface visual properties on confidence, anxiety, dynamic stability, and gaze behaviour in young and older adults

Thomas, NM and Skervin, TK and Foster, RJ and Parr, JV and Carpenter, MG and O'Brien, TD and Maganaris, CN and Baltzopoulos, V and Lees, C and Hollands, MA (2021) Influence of step-surface visual properties on confidence, anxiety, dynamic stability, and gaze behaviour in young and older adults. Human Movement Science, 77. ISSN 0167-9457

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Abstract

Background: Step-surface visual properties are often associated with stair falls. However, evidence for decorating stairs typically concerns the application of step-edge highlighters rather than the entire step-surface. Here we examine the influence of step-surface visual properties on stair descent safety, with a view to generating preliminary evidence for safe stair décor. Methods: Fourteen young (YA: 23.1 ± 3.7 years), 13 higher (HAOA: 67 ± 3.5) and 14 lower (LAOA: 73.4 ± 5.7) ability older adults descended a seven-step staircase. Older adults were stratified based on physiological/cognitive function. Step-surface décor patterns assessed were: Black and white (Busy); fine grey (Plain); and striped multicolour (Striped); each implemented with/without black edge-highlighters (5.5 cm width) totalling six conditions. Participants descended three times per condition. Confidence was assessed prior to, and anxiety following, the first descent in each condition. 3D kinematics (Vicon) quantified descent speed, margin of stability, and foot clearances with respect to step-edges. Eye tracking (Pupil-labs) recorded gaze. Data from three phases of descent (entry, middle, exit) were analysed. Linear mixed-effects models assessed within-subject effects of décor (×3) and edge highlighters (×2), between-subject effects of age (×3), and interactions between terms (α = p < .05). Results: Décor: Plain décor reduced anxiety in all ages and abilities (p = .032, effect size: gav = 0.3), and increased foot clearances in YA and HAOA in the middle phase (p < .001, gav = 0.53), thus improving safety. In contrast, LAOA exhibited no change in foot clearance with Plain décor. Patterned décor slowed descent (Busy: p < .001, gav = 0.2), increased margins of stability (Busy: p < .001, gav = 0.41; Striped: p < .001, gav = 0.25) and reduced steps looked ahead (Busy: p = .053, gav = 0.25; Striped: p = .039, gav = 0.28) in all ages and abilities. This reflects cautious descent, likely due to more challenging conditions for visually extracting information about the spatial characteristics of the steps useful to guide descent. Edge highlighters: Step-edge highlighters increased confidence (p < .001, gav = 0.53) and reduced anxiety (p < .001, gav = 0.45) in all ages and abilities and for all décor, whilst removing them slowed descent in HAOA (p = .01, gav = 0.26) and LAOA (p = .003, gav = 0.25). Step-edge highlighters also increased foot clearance in YA and HAOA (p = .003, gav = 0.14), whilst LAOA older adults showed no adaptation. No change in foot clearances with décor or step-edge highlighters in LAOA suggests an inability to adapt to step-surface visual properties. Conclusion: Patterned step surfaces can lead to more cautious and demanding stair negotiation from the perspective of visually extracting spatial information about the steps. In contrast, plain décor with step edge highlighters improves safety. We therefore suggest plain décor with edge highlighters is preferable for use on stairs.

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