Elderly men and women who were the slowest walkers were at increased risk of mild cognitive impairment, a form of memory loss that sometimes precedes Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Slowing down could precede dementia by many years, the findings suggest, and be an early warning sign of more serious memory and thinking problems down the road.
Having trouble walking can, of course, result from many common ailments, such as arthritis or fluid retention due to diabetes or heart disease. This study looked at 93 generally healthy volunteers, aged 70 and older, who were living alone in the Portland, Oregon area. Among the participants, 54 were free of memory problems, while the others had varying degrees of mild cognitive impairment, or MCI.
Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University installed heat-sensitive sensors in their homes. The system was designed to detect how fast they moved down hallways and other areas of the home.
“By using this new monitoring method, we were able to get a better idea of how even subtle changes in walking speed may correlate with the development of MCI,” said study author Hiroko Dodge, Ph.D. The findings were published in Neurology, a journal from the American Academy of Neurology.
The study volunteers were given memory and thinking tests and had their walking speed monitored at their homes unobtrusively over a three-year period. Participants were placed in groups of slow, moderate or fast based on their average weekly walking speed and how much their walking speed fluctuated at home.
The researchers found that people with MCI were nine times more likely to be slow walkers than moderate or fast walkers. Variations in walking speed were also more common in those with MCI.
Earlier studies have found that slower walking speed are associated with mild cognitive impairment, and may be one of many possible predictors of who will ultimately go on to develop dementia. Problems with gait, posture and balance have likewise been linked to declines in attention, memory and other cognitive skills.
The researchers note that the number of study participants was small, and few developed MCI during the actual study period. “Further studies need to be done using larger groups of participants to determine whether walking speed and its fluctuations could be a predictor of future memory and thinking problems in the elderly,” said Dr. Dodge. “If we can detect dementia at its earliest phases, then we can work to maintain people’s independence, provide treatments and ultimately develop ways to prevent the disease from developing.”
Source: H.H. Dodge, N.C. Mattek, D. Austin, et al: “In-Home Walking Speeds and Variability Trajectories Associated With Mild Cognitive Impairment.” Neurology Vol. 78, June 2012, pages 1946-1952.