Masks shall be worn is the order of the day, so we may as well learn to wear them properly.
That doesn’t mean just slipping the loops over your ears and fabric over your mouth. Not if you’re old it doesn’t.
Each time I put a mask on and try to look down I feel I might stumble and that’s because masks shrink your field of vision.
If your vision is a bit dodgy to begin with, as it is in many older people, then wearing a mask can carry the real risk of falling.
Elmar C Kal and colleagues from Brunel University London have outlined the hazards. Glasses wearers are particularly vulnerable as masks make glasses fog up and blur vision on top of blocking the lower field of vision.
Visual information from your lower peripheral field is important for spotting and avoiding approaching hazards and placing your steps safely.
Wearing a face mask makes it difficult to gather this important information during walking and may increase your chance of tripping or falling, particularly when negotiating obstacles and going downstairs.
Looking down while wearing a mask doesn’t help says Kal. Older adults use vision to detect obstacles and plan a safe path to walk. But having to look down more often makes it more difficult to plan ahead.
Recent research using eye tracking shows that older people make greater stepping errors when looking down compared with looking ahead.
Then, to keep your balance, visual information needs to be integrated with spatial information from limbs and joints. Not moving your head and eyes while walking provides a stable visual “anchor” for regulating balance. Looking down often works against this strategy.
It could even cause serious instability as it requires frequent, large movements of the head and eyes.
So, a recommendation to “look down” when wearing a mask may paradoxically impair stability by interfering with the fine tuning of vision we use to keep walking safely.
This will affect not only older adults, but anyone who is reliant on visions for balance, such as people with Parkinson’s disease or diabetic neuropathy.
How can we minimise the effects of masks on walking safety? Kal advises a tight fit around the nose and cheeks.
You should always take your time, rather than looking down, before starting to walk and then walk more slowly so you have enough time to see hazards ahead and plot a safe route.
A slow pace also means you don’t need rapid head and eye movements while walking.
Good tips! And maybe we should think about transparent masks?