The way we walk can say a lot about us; fast walkers are seen as individuals with high energy, while slow walkers are seen as more relaxed. Our gait can reveal more than just our personality - it may also predict our brain health. A recent study published in Neurology suggests there's a link between walking speed and the onset of dementia in older adults.

A decline in walking speed over an extended period of time was found to predict cognitive impairment. Participants who slowed down by 0.1 seconds more per year were 47 percent more likely to develop cognitive decline, compared to their peers. Moreover, those with a slower walking speed and mental decline experienced a shrinkage in the right hippocampus — associated with complex learning and memory.

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Andrea Rosso, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, stresses the difference in walking speed may seem small, but it can be significant over time.

“A fraction of a second is subtle, but over 14 years, or even less, you would notice,” she said, in a statement.

The results held true even after the researchers took into account a slowing gait could be due to muscle weakness, knee pain and diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

The researchers admit a slowing gait is not sufficient to diagnose a cognitive issue, but they propose for it to be included in regular geriatric evaluations to determine if there's a need for further testing. They believe analyzing walking speed can help lead to early detection for mental decline, which can give individuals access to early therapies to prevent its onset.

The screening approach used in this study could be an inexpensive way to reducing the severity of dementia.

The researchers used a stopwatch, tape, and an 18-foot-long hallway to measure walking speed in a total of 175 older adults, between the ages of 70 to 79 who were enrolled in the Health, Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC) study in Pittsburgh or Memphis. The participants showed good mental health and had normal brain scans during the start of the study. Over the course of 14 years, walking speed was assessed, and at the conclusion of the study, they were tested again for mental acuity and underwent brain scans.

Rosso argues while a decline in gait speed occurs during aging, we shouldn't ignore a significant decline over time. 

“People should not just write off these changes in walking speed. It may not just be that grandma’s getting slow—it could be an early indicator of something more serious," she said.

Previous research has linked walking speed to the likelihood of developing dementia. A 2013 study published in Neurology found within 93 older adults, who were aged 70 and over — 54 with no signs of cognitive decline; 31 with non-memory-related memory decline; and 8 with memory-loss related cognitive decline — that those who walked slowly were nine times more likely to develop non-memory-related mild cognitive decline than those who were moderate to fast walkers. Walking speed was monitored using infrared sensors in their homes over a three-year-period; they were also given regular memory and thinking tests.

This provides insight into how walking speed and dementia may be linked. These findings suggest walking speed could be a predictor of future cognitive impairment in older adults. With an estimated 47 million people diagnosed with dementia, and 9.9 million new cases every year, it's imperative to focus on prevention and early treatment to delay the progression of the disease.

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Doctors should closely observe changes in walking speed in old age that could potentially be an early sign of dementia, researchers recommend.

Source: Rosso AL, Verghese J, Metti AL et al. Slowing gait and risk for cognitive impairment: The hippocampus as a shared neural substrate. Neurology. 2017.

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