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Maximum voluntary isometric pinch contraction and

force-matching from the fourth to the eighth decades of life


Trenah L. Herring-Marler, Waneen W. Spirduso, Richard T. Eakin
and Lawrence D. Abraham
Understanding the effects of age and gender on pinch
strength, variability, and accuracy and how ones hand
function changes with age better enables those in the
preventative and rehabilitative fields to combat these
losses. The present study examined fine motor maximum
pinch strength [maximum voluntary isometric contraction
(MVIC)] as well as the ability to maintain 5% MVIC
accurately and consistently in five decades. One hundred
adults in five groups, 20 in each decade of life from 30 to 79
years old, were nonrandomly recruited from the community.
A two-way analysis of variance applied to MVIC, and a
two-way multivariate analysis of variance applied to the
variability (coefficient of variability) and accuracy (root
mean square error), plus correlation and regression
analyses, were used to determine decade and gender
effects on pinch force. The task involved using isometric
pinch control of a computer cursor to match a 5% of MVIC
force level represented by a horizontal line. MVIC and
force-matching steadiness and accuracy across all ages
were not significantly different until the eighth decade
(P<0.01). Men were stronger (P<0.001) but performed
low-level force-matching with greater error (P<0.001) than
women. Strength was not correlated with steadiness but
was weakly correlated with accuracy (r =0.293, P<0.01),
and steadiness and accuracy were strongly correlated
(r =0.783, P<0.001). Decade and gender were moderate
and strong predictors of accuracy and steadiness,
respectively. In conclusion, age and gender
differences were evident in pinch-force strength and
control. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research
37:159166 c 2014 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott
Williams & Wilkins.
International Journal of Rehabilitation Research 2014, 37:159166
Keywords: aging, force control, isometric contraction, pinch strength,
variability, visual motor coordination
Department of Kineisiology and Health Education, The University of Texas at
Austin, Austin, Texas, USA
Correspondence to Trenah L. Herring-Marler, PT, PhD, Department of Kineisiology
and Health Education, The University of Texas at Austin, 2100 San Jacinto Blvd, 1
University Station, D3700, Austin, TX 78712, USA
Tel: +1 512 517 5262; fax: +1 512 719 9911;
e-mail: trenah@mail.utexas.edu
Received 1 May 2012 Accepted 17 February 2013
Introduction
Strength
From 50 to 70 years of age, isometric strength in large
muscle groups deteriorates with aging at a rate of
B11.5% per year relative to the persons level
of strength at age 50 and 3% a year thereafter (Spirduso
et al., 2005b). Grabiner and Enoka (1995) reported a 15%
decrement in gross isometric strength per decade in
5070-year-olds. However, not much attention has been
focused on how isometric strength may decline with aging
in both men and women in muscles that control fine
motor skills, such as thumb and index finger pinching.
Even less understood is how lower arm and hand isometric
strength relates to function. Yet, strength in muscles that
control fine motor skills is necessary to perform tasks such
as writing, buttoning, and taking medicine.
Objective measures of fine motor tasks have exposed
greater weakness in older adults compared with in
younger adults (Galganski et al., 1993; Francis and
Spirduso, 2000; Ranganathan et al., 2001; Vaillancourt
et al., 2003; De Serres and Fang, 2004; Shim et al., 2004).
Ranganathan et al. (2001) found older adults (6579
years) handgrip force to be 30% weaker and their
maximum isometric pinch force to be 26% lower
than those of their younger counterparts (2035
years). Oliveira et al. (2008) demonstrated weaker force
production among older adults (>60 years) in the ability
to produce single-finger and multifinger force (13 and 48%
lower, respectively) as compared with their gender-
matched younger (mean 21.9 years) counterparts. De
Serres and Fang (2004) reported a mean maximal pinch
force of the dominant hand of 12 young adults (2228
years) at 60.2 N, compared with 44.2 N for 12 older adults
(6775 years), a 26.6% reduction. Similar results were
found with older participants (mean 70.5 years), showing
27.3% less pinch-grip strength than young adults (Ranga-
nathan et al., 2001). Sperling (1980) reported an average
drop of 14% in maximal finger pinch force in 70-year-old
men and women when compared with young adults
(2030 years). Similarly, Puh (2010), the only researcher
to compare pinch-grip strength across four age groups
(2034; 3549; 5064; 6579 years), found the fingertip
pinch of the oldest group to be 19% less than that of the
youngest group. However, the strongest age group was the
3549-year-old group, not the 2034-year-old group.
Force variability
Age also affects force variability during gross motor
submaximal contractions (Tracy and Enoka, 2002) and
Original article 159
0342-5282 c 2014 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins DOI: 10.1097/MRR.0b013e32836061ee
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is associated with increases in force variability during fine
motor force-matching tasks among old adults (Galganski
et al., 1993; Laidlaw et al., 2000; Ranganathan et al., 2001;
Vaillancourt et al., 2003; De Serres and Fang, 2004). In a
510% maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC)
matching pinch task, force fluctuations were significantly
greater in amplitude among older participants (6579
years) than in younger participants (2035 years) (Ranga-
nathan et al., 2001). Furthermore, healthy older adults
(Galganski et al., 1993) and women (Ranganathan et al.,
2001) showed a decreased ability to maintain steady
submaximal forces in the hand compared with that of
young adults (2035 years) and men, respectively.
Vaillancourt et al. (2003) found an increased coefficient
of variability (CV) of force with increased age at all
force levels [5, 10, 20, 40% maximum voluntary contrac-
tion (MVC)/MVIC]; however, the greatest age differential
in variability occurred at the 5 and 10% MVC force levels.
Accuracy
In addition to decreases in strength and increases in
variability, aging decreases fine motor finger force
regulation, especially at low forces (Shinohara et al.,
2003a) and more so for those in their 80s than those in
their 70s (Hackel et al., 1992). Other researchers have
substantiated these reports with findings of larger force-
matching errors at lower force levels for older adults
(Galganski et al., 1993; Visser et al., 2003; Sosnoff and
Newell, 2006). De Serres and Fang (2004) found near-
significant differences (P<0.068) in relative force error
between young and elderly groups (mean age 25.3 and
71.5 years, respectively) in force-reproduction tasks
without visual feedback at 5% maximal pinch force
(termed MVIC in the present study) but not at the 20
and 40% MVIC force-matching levels.
Gender and strength
Puh (2010) reported, along with seven other research
groups, that womens grip strength ranged from 57 to 65%
that of men and that womens fingertip-pinch strength
reached 73% that of men. Using single-finger and four-
finger tasks, Oliveira et al. (2008) and Shinohara et al.
(2003a) investigated how the gender of participants affects
MVIC. Elderly women showed greater force deficits
(51%; Oliveira et al., 2008: four-finger task and 35.7%;
Shinohara et al., 2003b) when compared with young
females, whereas older men showed 45% Oliveira et al.,
2008 and 28.2% less force production (Shinohara
et al., 2003b) than younger men. Elderly womens proximal
phalangeal press (intrinsic musculature) produced the
largest age-related force deficit of 45.2%, and mens distal
phalangeal press (extrinsic musculature) recorded the least
amount of force deficit at 23.1%, emphasizing differences
between sexes as well as between tasks that involve
extrinsic and intrinsic musculature tasks (Shinohara et al.,
2003b). Ranganathan et al. (2001) found that the pinch
strength of 70-year-old men was 14.2% less than that of
20-year-old men, but the pinch strength of 70-year-old
women was 32.5% less than that of young women, which was
more than double the pinch strength difference in men.
Gender in force variability and accuracy
Men and womens hand function decreases with age as
measured by the Jebson Test of Hand Function (Hackel
et al., 1992; Peolsson et al., 2001; Ranganathan et al., 2001).
However, gender effects in controlling submaximal forces
in fine motor tasks have been mixed. The ability of older
women to maintain a steady submaximal pinch force has
been reported to be less than that of men (Hackel et al.,
1992). However, Shimet al. (2004) did not find any gender
effects for a multifinger task at 10% MVIC. Shinohara et al.
(2003b) investigated how the gender of a participant
influenced finger coordination in submaximal ramped
force-matching, finding among elderly (7095 years old)
participants significant differences in the ability to match
a target force, with men having greater variability than
women (P<0.01).
Relationships among maximum voluntary isometric
contraction, force variability, and accuracy
Few researchers have correlated fine motor strength
measures to force variability or accuracy measures. In one
study, older womens peg-placing time significantly corre-
lated negatively with their index-thumb pinch strength
(r = 0.693; Ranganathan et al., 2001). Olafsdottir et al.
(2008) found high correlations between error measure-
ments and force. Accuracy of performance was associated
with increases in the force-stabilization synergies, which
the researchers attributed to the hypothesis that
synergies lead to more reproducible performance.
Understanding the effects of age and gender on pinch
strength, variability, and accuracy, and the manner in
which ones hand function changes with age better
enables those in the preventative and rehabilitative fields
to combat these losses. The present study examined fine
motor maximum pinch strength (MVIC) as well as the
ability to maintain 5% MVIC accurately and consistently
in five decades, from 30 to 80 years of age.
The researchers hypothesized that (a) 10-year age groups
(decades) would differ in MVIC, variability, and accuracy;
(b) mens MVIC pinch strength would be higher than
womens; (c) the interaction of decade and gender would
not be significant for MVIC pinch; and (d) gender
differences would not be significant for variability and
accuracy. It was also hypothesized that MVIC would be
correlated with submaximal force variability (CV) and
accuracy [root mean square error (RMSE)].
Methods
Participants
One hundred adults in five groups, 20 in each decade of
life from 30 to 79 years, participated voluntarily in the
160 International Journal of Rehabilitation Research 2014, Vol 37 No 2
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study. Each decade group contained 10 men and 10
women. On the basis of a P level of 0.05 or higher,
and power levels equal to or greater than 0.950, we
used Cohens (1988) interpretation of effect sizes to
determine meaningful differences. Participant selection,
regardless of ethnic background or socioeconomic status,
was based on the participants self-reported absence of
both neurological symptoms and past or current related
medical treatment. Participants were excluded if deemed
unable to comprehend or sufficiently perform practice
trials or if they presented with any other marked deficit
(e.g. vision impairments, orthopedic injury to tested
upper extremity) affecting their ability to complete the
task. Participants were allowed to use corrective lenses.
Participants taking medications that could interfere with
hand function, cognition, or visual acuity were also
excluded (e.g. lithium, baclofen).
Design
This study used a quasi-experimental between-model
design in which the independent variables (between
factors) were age (decade) (3079 years) and gender
(male/female). The dependent variables (within factors)
were MVIC, pinch-force variability (CV), and accuracy
(RMSE). The MVIC was defined as the highest aggregate
preferred hand thumb and finger force level of three
MVIC trials expressed in N. The CV (force variability)
was calculated as the mean of the coefficient of thumb
finger aggregate force measurements for all of a
participants 10 individual trials. Those 10 trial-specific
values represented an average difference between a
measured force at each sampling and the mean force
across all samplings scaled by that mean; that is, the SDs
away from the participants own mean divided by the
participants own mean. Thus, CV =sum (SD/m)/10.
The dependent variable used to indirectly assess accuracy
was a RMSE derived from the individual force error of
each sampling instance corresponding to the static target
level, which was scaled to 5% of the persons MVIC.
Thus, for each sampling, the error e was determined by
e f
c
j j5 % MVIC;
where f
c
is the force level of the cursor, determined
by the sum of the finger and thumb forces. The
dependent variables then were determined as the root
mean square of these error values, that is,
RMSE

P
N
i1
e
2
i
N
v
u
u
u
t
;
whose mean over a grouping is
RMSE
M

X
M
i1
RMSE
i
and the CV of force, that is,
CV

P
N
i1
f
c
f
c

2
i
=N
s
f
c
;
whose mean over a grouping is
CV
M

X
M
i1
CV
i
:
In these expressions N is the number of samplings within
the trial segment with the summation running overall
sampling instances in the interval being evaluated and
M is the number of trials or trial segments over which
the variable mean is taken.
Instrumentation and procedures
This study used the Manual Force Quantification System
(MFQS) (Fig. 1a and b), controlled by LabVIEW software
(LabVIEW 6.1; National Instruments, Austin, Texas,
USA), which quantifies low-level isometric force control
during a precision pinch task of the thumb and index
finger (Spirduso et al., 2005a). Spirduso et al. (2005a) can
also be referenced for instrumentation, procedures, and
data acquisition.
After a demonstration, the participants provided three
maximum pinch forces for a duration of 6 s each with a
1-min rest between them. The participants performed 10
force-matching (Fig. 2) trials at 5% MVIC for a test time
duration scaled to their MVIC, between 12 and 18 s.
These were the last 10 trials of a battery of three tests:
tracing (20 trials), tracking (20 trials) and force-matching
(10 trials). The protocol was similar to that described
by Spirduso et al. (2005b), and the details and outcomes
of these other results (tracing and tracking) are presented
in separate studies. No static force-matching elements
were included in the 40 prior task trials, thus the
participants gained no specific force-matching practice
by performing the prior tasks. Five of the 100 participants
used their left hand as their preferred hand (Fig. 2).
Analysis
Statistical analyses included descriptive statistics. A mod-
ified z-score method of finding outliers (Shiffler, 1988) was
used. Trial data that were above an absolute value of 2.85
(maximum z-score for an N of 10) were removed from the
data analysis but saved for reference. Means and SDs were
recalculated based on the remaining trials.
A simple analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to analyze
MVIC, and two-way MANOVA (decade and gender) with
Bonferroni correction was carried out to analyze RMSE and
CV in force-matching. Main effects and interactions were
tested. Post-hoc, pair-wise comparisons were carried out for
decades in MVIC, RMSE, and CV. Levenes test of
MVIC pinch and force-matching Herring-Marler et al. 161
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homogeneity, Pearsons product-moment correlation, and
regression analyses were performed.
Results
Maximum voluntary isometric contraction force
The main effect for decades MVIC was significant
[F(4,90) =4.857, P<0.001, Z
2
P
=0.178] for precision
pinch peak force (Fig. 3). Post-hoc, pair-wise comparisons
revealed that the maximum isometric pinch forces
of the participants in their 70s were significantly lower
than those of participants in their 40s (P<0.01),
50s (P<0.005), and 60s (P<0.01). Although the 30s
had higher MVIC values than the 70s, the difference
between the groups was not statistically significant
(P=0.09).
The main effect for gender was significant with a large
effect size for maximal pinch force [F(1,90) =81.09,
P<0.001, Z
2
P
=0.474]. The MVIC of women was 29.9%
less than that of men overall (Table 1). Gender did not
interact with decade in MVIC.
Force-matching
The force-matching test also resulted in age-related
effects for force variability and accuracy. The mean
within-participant force variability for each decade,
produced by averaging all the individual CV values of
the groups participants CV, revealed a main effect for
decade [F(4,90) =7.318, P<0.001, Z
2
P
=0.240]. Post-
hoc tests revealed that participants in their 70s were
more variable than participants in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and
60s (46, 48, 39, and 35% difference, respectively,
P<0.01; Fig. 4a). A main effect for accuracy (RMSE)
was found [F(4,90) =4.773, P<0.005, Z
2
P
=0.175].
Participants in their 70s produced significantly more
error than the participants in their 30s and 40s (43 and
36% at P<0.01, respectively). Additionally, participants
in their 70s approached significance in error differences
from participants in their 50s (30% more error, P=0.06);
whereas those in their 60s were not different from those
in their 70s (23% more error, P=0.33; Fig. 4b).
No gender effects were found for force variability.
However, there were gender effects for accuracy
[F(1,90) =17.389, P<0.001, Z
2
P
=0.162]. Men per-
formed with higher error at RMSE=0.073 N, whereas
the equivalent value for women was 32% lower
(RMSE=0.50 N). No interactions were found.
Correlation and homogeneity
Pearsons product-moment correlation with sexes com-
bined (N=100) between MVIC and accuracy (RMSE)
was r =0.293, P<0.01; whereas, for CV and RMSE it was
r =0.783, P<0.001. MVIC and CV were not significantly
correlated with each other.
Fig. 1
(a) Manual Force Quantification System (MFQS) and (b) force transducers. The MFQS includes a force-matching template displayed on a computer
screen, a platform, and a console (a) that supports the adjustable force transducers (b) and arm and wrist supports. Matching task is displayed on
computer monitor.
Fig. 2
Start
Stop
Target line
Visual cue lines
Analyzed data
Initial cursor position
Force-matching task. The participants dot cursor is red until his or her
combined thumb and finger force reaches his or her 5% maximum
voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) force level, which is the start point
on the horizontal line. Time, not the participant, moves the cursor across
the target line. The participant simply attempts to match a constant 5%
MVIC force level denoted by the target line for the time configured for
each participant, which is a time relative to his or her own MVIC.
162 International Journal of Rehabilitation Research 2014, Vol 37 No 2
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Levenes test for homogeneity of variance was applied
to determine how homogeneous each decades CV and
RMSE were CV (P<0.009) and RMSE (P<0.002). SDs
within each decade group tended to increase as the
decades increased with the greatest diversity (SD) being
in the 7079-year group (Table 2).
Regression
A regression analysis was performed to determine the
impact of MVIC, decade, and gender on force-variability
characteristics (CV and RMSE). The model revealed a
significant overall effect [F(3,99) =11.296, P<0.001,
R=0.511] for CV and [F(3,99) =12.631, P<0.001,
R=0.532] for RMSE.
MVIC, decade, and gender were all strong predictors of
CV (P<0.05, b = 0.292; P<0.01, b =0.422; and
P<0.001, b = 0.317, respectively). A 4.7% of variance
in CV was uniquely accounted for by MVIC (part
correlation = 0.217), 17% by decade (part correlation =
0.413), and 5.7% by gender (part correlation = 0.239).
Decade was a strong predictor (P<0.001, b =0.391) of
RMSE, whereas gender was a moderate predictor
(P<0.05, b= 0.229). Fifteen percent of RMSE var-
iance was uniquely accounted for by decade (part
correlation =0.383) and 3.0% by gender (part correla-
tion =0.172). MVIC was not a significant predictor of
RMSE [Part correlation (otherwise known as semipartial
correlations), as opposed to partial correlation, takes into
account other variables contributions and eliminates those
contributions from the influence of the variable of interest.].
Discussion
Maximum voluntary isometric pinch force
The results suggest that fine motor pinch strength
declines with age. Declines were slightly less than
previously reported for gross motor strength after 5070
years, 15% per decade (Grabiner and Enoka, 1995) or
11.5% per year (Spirduso et al., 2005b) with a 7%
decrease from the 50s to the 60s and 13% from the 60s to
the 70s. Furthermore, the strength differences between
the 70s and the 30s were similar (19% decrease; women
27%, men 13%) to losses previously recorded in various
fine motor strength studies involving older adults ranging
from 60 to 75 years and younger adults from 20 to 35 years
old, with 26% (Ranganathan et al., 2001), 30% (Oliveira
et al., 2008), 26.6% (De Serres and Fang, 2004), and 14%
(Sperling, 1980) strength losses.
Pinch-force strength did not decline linearly across the
decade groups, as has been seen with isometric grip
strength, which involves multiple larger muscle
masses. Rantanen et al. (1998) reported a clear linear
decline significantly different in every age group in a
sample of 3680 men ranging in age from 45 to 92 years in
grip strength, a manual isometric test requiring full force
from both intrinsic and extrinsic muscles controlling the
thumb and digits. Puh (2010) also found significant
differences in isometric grip and three different pinch
forces in four different age categories ranging from 2034
to 6579 years; however, these were not linear. Puhs
second age group (3549 years) and this studys second
age group (4049 years) showed higher strength levels
than the respective younger age groups.
While our 4069-year-olds were statistically stronger than
the 70-year-olds, 30-year-olds had higher MVIC values
Fig. 3
MVIC
M
V
I
C

(
N
)
120
100
80
60
40
20
0
30s 40s 50s 60s 70s
Men Women
Maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) force across decades.
The 7079-year-olds were weaker than people in their 60s, 50s, and
40s (P<0.01), but, interestingly, not weaker than the 30s. Values are
the decade group meansSD.
Table 1 Maximal voluntary isometric contraction by decade and gender
MSD
Fourth decade
(3039 years)
Fifth decade
(4049 years)
Sixth decade
(5059 years)
Seventh decade
(6069 years)
Eighth decade
(7079 years)
Average across
decades
MVIC force (N) 63.214 66.019 69.516 67.016 54.016 64.317
Men MVIC (N) 73.507 78.317 78.815 80.110 63.313 74.814
Women MVIC (N) 52.811 55.012 59.210 53.908 44.713 53.112
MVIC, maximum voluntary isometric contraction.
MVIC pinch and force-matching Herring-Marler et al. 163
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than those in their 70s, but not so much so that it
resulted in significant differences. Upon closer examina-
tion, the 30-year-olds contained a wide distribution of
MVIC values with two substantially low MVICs, which
contributed toward the insignificant differences (P=
0.09) between the 30- and 70-year-olds.
Gender effects on maximumvoluntary isometric contraction
The significant gender main effect indicated that
womens pinch-force averages were lower than mens
throughout the decades. Averaged over five decades, men
were 29% stronger than women. An analysis of within-
gender age differences revealed that men in their 70s
were able to produce 87% of their MVIC compared with
men in their 30s, whereas women in their 70s produced
only 75% compared with women in their 30s.
The decade gender interaction was not significant. The
observation of lower MVIC for women is consistent
with previous findings. This could be explained by the
findings that women have less muscle mass than men
(Puh, 2010), demonstrate smaller twitch forces (Doherty
and Brown, 1997), have a longer half-relaxation time, and
have a higher proportion of type I fibers (Hunter, 2009).
Force variability and accuracy
The ability of participants to sustain a steady force at a
target level was compromised with aging. Adults in their
70s exhibited higher force variability than those in all
other decades. The results were similar for accuracy;
however, the difference in the 60s and 70s approached
significance (P=0.06). Group mean step differences
between decades for force variability (CV) were as
follows: fifthfourth decade =0.000, sixthfifth decade =
0.001, seventhsixth decade =0.001, and eighth
seventh decade =0.008 (Fig. 4a). Group mean step
differences in force error (RMSE) were 0.006, 0.005,
0.005, and 0.019 N, respectively (Fig. 4b). Therefore, the
age differences for force-matching were also nonlinear.
Accuracy, but not force variability, was weakly and
positively correlated with fine motor strength, which
suggests that the stronger the participant was the less
accurate his or her force-matching performance was (as
measured by RMSE). CV and RMSE were positively
correlated with each other. Finally, the older the age
group was the greater were the differences in MVIC,
accuracy, and force variability among members of that
decade.
Fig. 4
0.04
0.035
0.16
0.14
0.12
0.1
0.08
(a) (b)
0.06
0.04
0.02
0
CV
C
V
RMSE
R
M
S
E
0.03
0.02
0.015
0.01
0.005
0
30s 40s 50s 60s 70s 30s 40s 50s 60s 70s
0.025
Men Women
Force-matching. (a) Force variability [coefficient of variability (CV)] across decades, (b) accuracy [root mean square error (RMSE)] across decades.
Arrows, significant difference; double hash intercepts, near differences. The 7079-year-olds were significantly different from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and
60s (P<0.001) for CV but the 70s were not different from the 50s (P=0.06) or 60s (P=0.32) for RMSE. Values are decade group meansSD.
Table 2 Force variability (coefficient of variation) and accuracy (root mean square error) by decade and gender
MSD
Fourth decade
(3039 years)
Fifth decade
(4049 years)
Sixth decade
(5059 years)
Seventh decade
(6069 years)
Eighth decade
(7079 years)
Average across
decades
Force variability (CV) 0.0130.004 0.0130.005 0.0140.005 0.0150.006 0.0230.010 0.0160.006
Men (CV) 0.0130.004 0.0120.003 0.0150.007 0.0160.007 0.0250.007 0.0160.006
Women (CV) 0.0120.004 0.0130.006 0.0120.003 0.0140.006 0.0230.012 0.0130.005
Accuracy (RMSE) 0.0480.015 0.0540.025 0.0590.034 0.0650.028 0.0840.042 0.0620.032
Men (RMSE) 0.0550.015 0.0560.017 0.0740.042 0.0750.022 0.1070.042 0.0730.034
Women (RMSE) 0.0410.012 0.0520.032 0.0450.015 0.0540.030 0.0600.028 0.0500.024
CV, coefficient of variability; RMSE, root mean square error.
164 International Journal of Rehabilitation Research 2014, Vol 37 No 2
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Several factors have been proposed as explanations for
greater force variability and lower accuracy in the force
control of older adults: lower levels of maximum strength,
enhanced neural noise, and tactile and proprioceptive
effects.
Low force levels
It is well documented that controlling very low levels (5%
MVIC) of force is more difficult than controlling higher
levels (Slifkin and Newell, 1999; Varadhan et al., 2010).
Also, in older participants who have significantly lower
MVICs, the requirement of extremely low force levels
(5% MVIC) could account for the greater difficulty that
older adults have in the force-matching task. Producing
5% of a very low MVIC could possibly be more
challenging than producing 5% of a moderate MVIC
(Sosnoff and Newell, 2006).
Enhanced neural noise
Neuronal noise is a term commonly used to describe the
continuous and frequent random synaptic inputs within
complex neural networks that affect individual neurons,
creating a noisy synaptic input state for any given
neuron. The noisier the neural state is the higher the
signal (motor command) has to be to be detected.
Neuronal and synaptic noise has been shown to increase
with age, resulting in lower signal-to-noise ratios, which
in turn results in older adults greater error fluctuations
during voluntary force production (Jones et al.,
2002; Smits-Engelsman et al., 2003; Christou and Tracy,
2006; John et al., 2009). Pasco et al. (2011) suggested that
age-related changes in the integration of synaptic input
reduce the ability of older adults to modulate discharge
characteristics of motor units at low sustained isometric
force levels (5% MVC) of the biceps brachii.
Tactile and proprioceptive mechanisms
A third factor that may explain age differences in
variability and accuracy is the contribution of tactile and
proprioceptive mechanisms. Neurologists and physical
therapists often use weighted spoons, wrist or ankle cuffs,
or vests to assist their patients in producing steadier and
smoother movements and hence prevent food and drink
spills. Weighting enhances sensory information from
receptors for increased proprioception (muscle spindles
and Golgi tendon organs), thus assisting patients by
providing more feedback about their location in space
and allowing them to better feel the force they are
producing. In addition, pressure (force) is sensed through
pacinian corpuscles, which enhances the development of
motor memory for the task at hand (Fix, 2002). A similar
phenomenon could be occurring with the force-matching
task. Researchers suggest that 5% MVIC of a weaker
person could result in a more unloaded condition,
feasibly offering significantly reduced initial sensory feed-
forward proprioception information as well as providing
less proprioception and kinesthesia for the participant
(Robles-De-La-Torre and Hayward, 2001).
Gender effects on force variability and accuracy
Gender differences were not significant in force variability
(CV), but they were significant in accuracy as measured by
RMSE. Just as Shinohara et al. (2003b) found men to be
more variable, this study showed similar results: men
produced greater error, RMSE=0.073N, than women,
RMSE=0.050 N. The differences in mens and womens
body sizes have been attributed to more effective gross
motor performance in men (Thomas et al., 1991), but fine
motor tasks require different sensorimotor attributes than
strength and power. Women have been shown to perform
better in tasks requiring sensory discrimination (Noble,
1978). Women also have a greater number of type 1 fibers;
therefore, they would activate more motor units at lower
force levels than men and, hence, would be better able to
modify fine motor forces.
Conclusion
As expected, 7079-year-olds were weaker than 4069-
year-olds, and women were weaker than men. Unique
findings of this study were that (a) no differences were
found in strength, steadiness, or force variability among
the decades, up to the seventh decade (r69 years of
age); (b) 7079-year-olds were weaker, less steady, and
less accurate in force-matching than their younger
counterparts; (c) although Hackel (1992) found women
more variable and Shim et al. (2004) reported no gender
difference, the results of this study were in agreement
with those of Shinohara et al. (2003b) that men performed
low-level force-matching with greater error than women;
(d) strength was not correlated with steadiness but was
weakly correlated with accuracy, and steadiness and
accuracy were strongly correlated; and (e) decade and
gender were moderate and strong predictors of accuracy
and steadiness, respectively.
Clinical applications
Fine motor strength declines are significant and can cause
severe limitations in daily activities as adults age. Society
has been educated and trained to address age-related gross-
muscle motor losses with research, rehabilitation, and
training, but it is clear that fine motor deficits can be
seriously debilitating as well and should receive more
attention. The results suggest that additional research
should address the benefits of training programs designed
to increase finger strength and dexterity. Accordingly, these
programs should be initiated no later than a persons sixth
decade (age 5059 years), especially in women.
The increase in SD in MVIC, force variability, and accuracy
within decade groups as age progresses suggest that as
people age they become more diversified within their age
groups. This implies that some people retain function as
they grow old, and some do not. An important goal of aging
MVIC pinch and force-matching Herring-Marler et al. 165
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research is to determine how to increase the number of
individuals who maintain function in their later years.
Limitations
A potential limitation for this study is a possible order
effect of task administration that could have produced
cognitive and physical fatigue. Force-matching was the
last of three tasks the participants performed within the
test session and was the easiest, but all tasks required
high levels of attention and information processing. Each
test session was B3045 min long and could have
produced some cognitive fatigue. However, given that
the matching task included only 10 trials and required
only 5% MVIC and that the overall duration over which
the slowest participants were actively contracting isome-
trically during the entire protocol was no more than
B4 min, it is unlikely that physical fatigue, even in the
older groups, compromised the results.
Acknowledgements
The authors acknowledge and express extended appre-
ciation for the excellent help of Diana Hunter for
consultation on design and written representation,
Michael Mahometa from the Division of Statistics and
Scientific Computation at The University of Texas at
Austin for statistical consultation, and Tess Roach for
editing services.
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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