The decline of motor performance of the human hand-arm system with age is well-documented. While dominant hand performance is superior to that of the non-dominant hand in young individuals, little is known of possible age-related changes in hand dominance. We investigated age-related alterations of hand dominance in 20 to 90 year old subjects. All subjects were unambiguously right-handed according to the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory. In Experiment 1, motor performance for aiming, postural tremor, precision of arm-hand movement, speed of arm-hand movement, and wrist-finger speed tasks were tested. In Experiment 2, accelerometer-sensors were used to obtain objective records of hand use in everyday activities.
Our data confirm previous findings of a general task-dependent decline in motor performance with age. Analysis of the relationship between right/left-hand performances using a laterality index showed a loss of right hand dominance with advancing age. The clear right-hand advantage present at younger ages changed to a more balanced performance in advanced age. This shift was due to a more pronounced age-related decline of right hand performance. Accelerometer-sensor measurements supported these findings by demonstrating that the frequency of hand use also shifted from a clear right hand preference in young adults to a more balanced usage of both hands in old age. Despite these age-related changes in the relative level of performance in defined motor tasks and in the frequency of hand use, elderly subjects continued to rate themselves as unambiguous right-handers.
The discrepancy between hand-specific practical performance in controlled motor tests as well as under everyday conditions and the results of questionnaires concerning hand use and hand dominance suggests that most elderly subjects are unaware of the changes in hand dominance that occur over their lifespan, i.e., a shift to ambidexterity.