BACKGROUND: a large proportion of falls in older people occur when walking; however the mechanisms underlying impaired balance during gait are poorly understood. OBJECTIVE: to evaluate acceleration patterns at the head and pelvis in young and older subjects when walking on a level and an irregular walking surface, in order to develop an understanding of how ageing affects postural responses to challenging walking conditions. METHODS: temporo-spatial gait parameters and variables derived from acceleration signals were recorded in 30 young people aged 22-39 years (mean 29.0, SD 4.3), and 30 older people with a low risk of falling aged 75-85 years (mean 79.0, SD 3.0) while walking on a level and an irregular walking surface. Subjects also underwent tests of vision, sensation, strength, reaction time and balance. RESULTS: older subjects exhibited a more conservative gait pattern, characterised by reduced velocity, shorter step length and increased step timing variability. These differences were particularly pronounced when walking on the irregular surface. The magnitude of accelerations at the head and pelvis were generally smaller in older subjects; however the smoothness of the acceleration signals did not differ between the two groups. Older subjects performed worse on tests of vision, peripheral sensation, strength, reaction time and balance. CONCLUSION: the adoption of a more conservative basic gait pattern by older people with a low risk of falling reduces the magnitude of accelerations experienced by the head and pelvis when walking, which is likely to be a compensatory strategy to maintain balance in the presence of age-related deficits in physiological function, particularly reduced lower limb strength.