Background. The cause of frequent falling in patients with dementia of the Alzheimer type (AD) is not well understood. Distraction from incongruent visual stimuli may be an important factor as suggested by their poor performance in tests of shifting visual attention in other studies. The purpose of this study was to determine whether AD patients have difficulty maintaining upright balance under absent and/or incongruent visual and other sensory conditions compared to nondemented healthy elderly persons and individuals with Parkinson's disease (PD).

Methods. Seventeen healthy older adults, 15 medicated PD subjects, and 11 AD subjects underwent the Sensory Organization Test protocol. The incidence of loss of balance (“falls”), and the peak-to-peak amplitude of body center of mass sway during stance in the six sensory conditions were used to infer the ability to use visual, somatosensory, and vestibular signals when they provided useful information for balance, and to suppress them when they were incongruent as an orientation reference. Vestibular reflex tests were conducted to ensure normal vestibular function in the subjects.

Results. AD subjects had normal vestibular function but had trouble using it in condition 6, where they had to concurrently suppress both incongruent visual and somatosensory inputs. All 11 AD subjects fell in the first trial of this condition. With repeated trials, only three AD subjects were able to stay balanced. AD subjects were able to keep their balance when only somatosensory input was incongruent. In this condition, all AD subjects were able to maintain balance whereas some falls occurred in the other groups. In all conditions, when AD subjects did not fall, they were able to control as large a sway as the healthy controls, except when standing with eyes closed in condition 2: AD subjects did not increase their sway whereas the other groups did. In the PD group, the total fall incidence was similar to the AD group, but the distribution was generalized across more sensory conditions. PD subjects were also able to improve with repeated trials in condition 6.

Conclusion. Patients with dementia of the Alzheimer type have decreased ability to suppress incongruent visual stimuli when trying to maintain balance. However, they did not seem to be dependent on vision for balance because they did not increase their sway when vision was absent. Parkinsonian patients have a more general balance control problem in the sensory organization test, possibly related to difficulty changing set.