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Shorter gastrocnemius fascicle lengths in older adults associate with worse capacity to enhance push-off intensity in walking

Katie A. Conway and Jason R. Franz

Background: Reduced push-off intensity during walking is thought to play an important role in age-related mobility impairment. We posit that an age-related shift toward shorter plantarflexor operating lengths during walking functionally limits force generation, and thereby the ability of those muscles to respond to increased propulsive demands during walking. Research Question: To determine whether gastrocnemius muscle fascicle lengths during normal walking: (1) are shorter in older than young adults, and (2) correlate with one’s capacity to increase the propulsive demands of walking to their maximum. Methods: We used in vivo cine B-mode ultrasound to measure gastrocnemius fascicle lengths in 9 older and 9 young adults walking at their preferred speed, their maximum speed, and with horizontal impeding forces that increased in a ramped design at 1%BW/s to their maximum. A repeated measures ANOVA tested for effects of age and walking condition, and Pearson correlations assessed the relation between fascicle outcomes and condition performance. Results: A tendency toward shorter medial gastrocnemius muscle fascicle lengths in older versus young adults was not statistically significant. However, older adults walked with reduced peak fascicle shortening during all conditions compared to young adults – an outcome not explained by reduced muscle-tendon unit shortening and exacerbated during tasks with greater than normal propulsive demand. As hypothesized, we found a strong and significant positive correlation in older subjects between gastrocnemius fascicle lengths during normal walking and performance on the ramped impeding force condition (p=0.005, r²=0.704), even after controlling for isometric strength (p=0.011, r²=0.792) and subject stature (p=0.010, r²=0.700). Significance: Our findings provide muscle-level insight to develop more effective rehabilitation techniques to improve push-off intensity in older adults and assistive technologies designed to steer plantarflexor muscle fascicle operating behavior during functional tasks.

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