Walking more slowly in older age could be a warning sign for dementia, major study finds

Slowed walking speed in older age could be a sign of dementia, study finds, as part of brain that controls pace begins to shrink

  • American and Australian scientists tracked 17,000 over-65s for seven years
  • They found people that walked five percent slower per year and had cognitive decline were most at risk of developing dementia
  • Scientists said walking exams should be included in tests for dementia
  • About five million Americans have the debilitating disease, estimates suggest 

Walking more slowly in old age could be a warning sign for dementia, a major study has suggested.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Monash University, Australia, monitored people over 75 years old and found that those who lost 0.05 meters per second from their pace every year and had signs of mental decline were most at risk.

The international team said this was likely because as the the brain declines in the debilitating condition it also affects the areas involved in walking.

About five million Americans have dementia, estimates suggest, with there being no cures for the conditions, just treatments that can ease symptoms.

The above graph shows the incidence of dementia (y axis) since the study began by four groups. These are dual decliners (dark blue line) who had a slower gait and cognition, people with cognitive decline (orange), people with just a slower gait (blue line) and people with neither of the conditions (green line)

Scientists say that walking about five percent slower per year in old age could be a warning sign of dementia (Stock photo)

Scientists say that walking about five percent slower per year in old age could be a warning sign of dementia (Stock photo)

How can walking speed indicate dementia risk? 

A growing body of studies suggests that how fast someone walks in later life can indicate whether they have dementia.

In the latest paper — from American and Australian scientists — experts found that a decline in gait speed of 0.05 m/s or more a year coupled with cognitive decline was a warning sign of dementia.

Scientists say the link is likely because areas that decline in dementia are also involved in walking.

This means that as they become damaged due to the disease, sufferers also experience trouble walking.

About five million Americans have dementia, estimates suggest. 

The study — published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open —  tracked a group of over 15,000 elderly people for nearly a decade.

In the paper the cognition and walking speed of 17,000 older adults was tracked for seven years.

Participants were American and Australian, mostly female, and from white backgrounds.

Scientists measured cognition every 24 months with tests for memory decline, processing speed and verbal fluency.

Walking speed was checked twice every other year by measuring participants pace when they walked 10 feet.

People who were ‘dual decliners’ — had walks that slowed per year and declining cognition — were most likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

A fall in walking speed was defined as losing 0.05 meters per second or more from the normal pace — at about 1.2 to 1.4 — every year. 

This group saw about 178 cases detected, or 11.3 percent of their total number of participants.

For comparison, those who showed no decline in cognition or gait, the pace in which someone walks, were least likely to have the disease with just 25 participants being diagnosed (0.3 percent).

The scientists also looked at participants who had declines in just walking speed and just cognition.

This showed the former were at a similar risk of the illness to those with no decline (27 cases, or one percent). In the latter group there were 158 cases diagnosed, equivalent to 3.9 percent of the group.

The scientists analyzed the data last year, with the tests down between 2010 and 2017.

Dr Taya Collyer, a biostatician from Monash University who led the study, and others said: ‘It is possible that gait measures capture decline in [brain] domains, which are required (in addition to memory decline) for dementia diagnosis.

‘Association between [brain] domains, such as processing speed and verbal fluency, with gait have been explained by the crossover in the underlying networks or pathology.’

The team also said that their findings underlined the need to include walking tests when attempting to diagnose a patient with dementia.

They said: ‘These results highlight the importance of gait in dementia risk assessment.

‘They suggest that dual decline in gait speed and memory measure may be the best combination to assess future decline.’

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