Slowness is a well-recognized feature of movements in aging. One of the possible reasons for slowness suggested by previous research is production of corrective submovements that compensate for shortened primary submovement to the target. Here, we re-examine this traditional interpretation and argue that the majority of submovements in older adults may be a consequence rather than the cause of slowness.
Pointing movements in young and older adults were recorded. Conditions for submovement emergence were manipulated by using small and large targets and three movement modes: discrete (required stopping on the target), reciprocal (required reversal on the target), and passing (required crossing the target and stopping after that). Movements were parsed into a primary and secondary submovement based on zero-crossings of velocity (type 1 submovements), acceleration (type 2 submovements), and jerk (type 3 submovements). In the passing mode, secondary submovements were analyzed only after crossing the target to exclude that they were accuracy adjustments.
Consistent with previous research, the primary submovement was shortened and total secondary submovement incidence was increased in older adults. However, comparisons across conditions suggested that many submovements were non-corrective in both groups. Type 1 submovements were non-corrective because they were more frequent for large than small targets. They predominantly emerged due to arm stabilization and energy dissipation during motion termination in the discrete and passing mode. Although type 2 and 3 submovements were more frequent for small than large targets, this trend was also observed in the passing mode, suggesting that many of these submovements were non-corrective. Rather, they could have been velocity fluctuations associated predominantly with low speed of movements to small targets.
The results question the traditional interpretation of frequent submovements in older adults as corrective adjustments. Rather, the increased incidence of submovements in older adults is directly related to low movement speed observed in aging, whereas the relationship between submovement incidence and target size is a result of speed-accuracy trade-off. Aging-related declines in muscular control that may contribute to the disproportional increases in submovement incidence during slow movements of older adults are discussed.