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In his high school and college days, Rick was an outstanding basketball player—good shooter, prolific scorer. He was even better at ping-pong (table tennis, for purists)—good hands, quick reflexes, great hand-eye coordination.
For Rick, playing ping-pong eventually gave way to work, family, church, and other responsibilities and interests. Decades years later, in retirement, Rick has started playing ping-pong again, but something is different. In the middle of a rapid-fire volley, he occasionally swings and misses when reaching for a ball—something that never would have happened in his earlier ping-pong life. And the same thing happens to opponents who are in their 60s or 70s.
What Is Hand-Eye Coordination?
Rick’s ping-pong problem is just one symptom of a decline in hand-eye coordination, a fact of life among almost every older adult. Hand-eye coordination is the ability to perform activities that require simultaneous use of the hands and eyes. With a decline in hand-eye coordination, the brain has trouble communicating efficiently when telling the hands to carry out a movement.
Several studies have confirmed that a hand-eye problem exists as we age, while also showing us what goes on in the nervous system that’s causing the failure of communication.
How Hand-Eye Coordination Declines As We Age
- Perceptual motor adaptability: One study published in The Journal of Gerontology compared perceptual motor adaptability between younger adults ages 20 to 36 to that of older adults 67 to 87 years old. The main conclusion was that perceptual motor adaptability—physical movements responding to information collected and processed by the brain—declines with advancing age.
- Reaching and grasping: In 2013, the journal Psychological Science reported that in addition to physical and perceptual changes, some day-to-day reaching and grasping difficulties may be caused by mental frame-of-reference changes in older adults. They might be less able to adjust their reaching movements to avoid obstacles.
- Fine motor skills: A 2014 study of almost 2,000 persons aged 45 years and older published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience confirmed that aging was related to worsening of fine motor skills needed to perform routine daily activities.
Daily Activities Affected by Loss of Hand-Eye Coordination
Each of these studies, plus others, suggests that declining hand-eye coordination can affect a person’s quality of life. It’s not just moving the hands quickly; it’s moving the hands efficiently, correctly, and rapidly (enough) while performing a specific task. In other words, it’s not being so clumsy. Here are some examples:
- Inserting a key into a lock
- Buttoning a shirt or blouse
- Tying a tie
- Striking keys on a cellphone
- Reaching for an object (without knocking over another object in the process)
- Playing a sport
How to Maintain Hand-Eye Coordination
“I don’t think there is any question that play ping-pong has helped my hand-eye coordination in other aspects of my life,” says Rick, now 74. “It just makes me pay attention more closely when I have to reach for things. It’s also great exercise because we play doubles, which makes us move more than playing singles. We play twice a week for three hours straight, including a couple of short water breaks.”
Ping-pong is not an option for everyone, but doing other activities that require hand-eye coordination might also help.
Simply “playing catch”—tossing a ball back and forth with a partner—might be something to try, or tossing a tennis ball against a wall and catching it with one hand. Tossing a ball from one hand to the other is another hand-eye exercise. Trying the same thing while balancing on one foot is an even more demanding task.
Tai chi, yoga, and Pilates, all of which include stretching and balancing movements, may help, and swimming is a low impact exercise that enhances overall fitness, though not hand-eye coordination specifically.
An out-of-the-box suggestion is to play video games. Although the subjects were not older adults, a study at the University of Toronto found that people who play video games are better able to improve hand-eye coordination than those who don’t.
Ask Your Doctor
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is let your doctor know about changes you may have noticed. He or she can determine whether there’s a neurological condition that needs to be addressed—or recommend physical therapy to help you maintain your present hand-eye skills.
The following posts offer guidance for staying active and fit:
- How to Become Flexible: Easy Exercises to Keep You Limber and Independent
- Health and Fitness for Seniors: Avoid Injury When You Exercise
- Yoga for Seniors
- Functional Exercises for Seniors: Maintain Muscle Mass to Fight Sarcopenia
And don’t underestimate the benefits of walking.