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Fear & Falls: The role of psychological factors in the control of posture and gait in older adults

Falls are a major health concern in the older adult (>65 years) population, affecting almost 30% of people on a yearly basis. Research has shown that increased fall risk is a multifactorial problem, to which physiological (e.g., vision loss), physical (e.g., reduced muscle strength) and cognitive factors (e.g., cognitive impairment) may all contribute.

However, psychological factors may also affect fall risk. Around 40% of older adults develop fear of falling. While we know this increases fall risk, we do not really understand why this is the case or how we can best address this.

Therefore, the main overarching aim of this project is to investigate how fear of falling affects the control of gait and balance in older adults. This is essential to develop potential interventions aimed to reduce its impact and by extension the risk of falling in older adults.

Applicants would ideally have a background in sports science, movement science, physiotherapy, and/or (sports) psychology, or related fields. It would be desirable if applicants have affinity/experience with movement analysis (e.g., motion tracking, electromyography, force plate assessments), eye-tracking technology, or psychological theories relevant to this area of research.


• Bergen, G., Stevens, M. R., & Burns, E. R. (2016). Falls and fall injuries among adults aged≥ 65 years—United States, 2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 65(37), 993-998.

• Ellmers, T. J., Cocks, A. J., Kal, E. C., & Young, W. R. (2020). Conscious movement processing, fall-related anxiety, and the visuomotor control of locomotion in older adults. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 75(9), 1911-1920.

• Scheffer, A. C., Schuurmans, M. J., Van Dijk, N., Van Der Hooft, T., & De Rooij, S. E. (2008). Fear of falling: measurement strategy, prevalence, risk factors and consequences among older persons. Age and ageing, 37(1), 19-24.

• Young, W. R., & Williams, A. M. (2015). How fear of falling can increase fall-risk in older adults: applying psychological theory to practical observations. Gait & Posture, 41(1), 7-12.

How to apply

If you are interested in applying for the above PhD topic please follow the steps below:

  1. Contact the supervisor by email or phone to discuss your interest and find out if you woold be suitable. Supervisor details can be found on this topic page. The supervisor will guide you in developing the topic-specific research proposal, which will form part of your application.
  2. Click on the 'Apply here' button on this page and you will be taken to the relevant PhD course page, where you can apply using an online application.
  3. Complete the online application indicating your selected supervisor and include the research proposal for the topic you have selected.

Good luck!

This is a self funded topic

Brunel offers a number of funding options to research students that help cover the cost of their tuition fees, contribute to living expenses or both. See more information here: https://www.brunel.ac.uk/research/Research-degrees/Research-degree-funding. The UK Government is also offering Doctoral Student Loans for eligible students, and there is some funding available through the Research Councils. Many of our international students benefit from funding provided by their governments or employers. Brunel alumni enjoy tuition fee discounts of 15%.

Meet the Supervisor(s) for this Studentship

Adam Cocks - Adam is a Lecturer in Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences (Psychology). Following the completion of his BSc (Hons) and MSc degrees at the University of Central Lancashire, Adam joined Brunel University London as a PhD student on the Isambard Scholarship Scheme in October 2012. His PhD research focussed on applying theories relating to anxiety and performance to novel dynamic domains. This included investigating how anxiety influences anticipation judgements during sport as well as fall-risk-related behaviours in older adults. After being awarded his PhD, and completing a short term Research Assistant post in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Brunel, he began his current role in November 2017.

Elmar Kal - I gained my BSc (2011) and MSc (2012; cum laude) degrees from the Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Netherlands). I subsequently worked on a PhD project in which he investigated implicit motor learning in people after stroke. In this collaborative project, I gained experience with a range of study designs (RCT, systematic reviews, questionnaire validation), measurement techniques (e.g. EMG, 3D motion registration) and statistical approaches (e.g. regression-, meta-, and factor analysis). Towards the end of my PhD, I also worked as Lecturer in Movement Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, leading a 2nd-year BSc module on Pathology of Movement and teaching on evidence-based practice. I additionally worked as researcher at the chronic pain unit of Rehabilitation Centre Heliomare.I moved to London in March 2019, to take up my current position as Research Fellow at Brunel. I am currently in charge of the posture and gait lab, with my current research focusing on the topic of falls in older adults and neurological populations. I am mostly interested in the influence of cognitive and psychological factors on postural stability during standing and walking in these populations. This requires the use of different measurement techniques to parcel out the complex mechanisms governing healthy and pathological balance control. Ultimately my goal is to use this knowledge to improve the effectiveness of specific motor learning interventions (e.g. implicit learning) to target specific impairments in posture and gait in these populations.