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Visually-impaired risk falls by stepping higher over objects

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Researchers have found that people with impaired vision are more cautious when stepping over obstacles when walking — but as a result they increase their risk of falls.

In a study at Anglia Ruskin University, participants with simulated blurred vision were asked to negotiate a 10cm-high obstacle on the floor under increasing time pressure. The way they negotiated the obstacle was recorded, as was their gaze.

Findings published in the journal Scientific Reports show that those with with impaired vision lifted their lead foot 43% higher and 10% slower over the obstacle than the control group, even when walking 20% faster. However, this pronounced gait affected their stability, the researchers said.

The group with vision impairment also showed around a third (32%) more anxiety than the control group irrespective of time pressure, and they looked down more frequently and for longer when approaching the obstacle.

“Walking with vision loss requires significantly more mental effort, and this research shows that even when performing a simple task like stepping over an obstacle, people with sight problems have considerable anxiety about falling, particularly when they might be in a hurry,” said Professor Shahina Pardhan, director of the Vision and Eye Research Institute at Anglia Ruskin University.

“While the lifting of the lead foot higher over the obstacle gives more clearance, it also means they are less stable when negotiating it, which could cause them to lose their balance.

“Around half of all vision impairment is preventable. It is vital that people do all they can to identify and correct their vision impairment when they can, as it would certainly lead to fewer falls and therefore less pressure on emergency services.”