Is Slower Walking a Sign of Cognitive Decline?

Jun 22, 2022

We’ve all noticed that elderly people tend to walk more slowly than they used to. Just look at your parents or grandparents, your elderly neighbour, or your senior-aged friends for that matter. We’re seniors, and we see it in ourselves too. Partly it’s a defence mechanism, especially on tricky terrain or when negotiating slippery surfaces, when taking the stairs and when we’re just plain tired. We slow down for safety’s sake. Some of us slow down primarily because we’re getting old. However, for some it’s because of something else.

It’s not only a decline in physical capacity that we fear could lead to falls and other disabilities. As it turns out, a slower gait can also be an indicator that dementia may be setting in as well.

Emerging research in groups among elderly subjects tends to suggest that a slower gait from year to year may be an early sign of cognitive decline.

New Studies on the Early Detection of Dementia

According to a report on CNN, a new study of nearly 17,000 adults over age 65 finds people who walk about 5% slower or more each year, while also exhibiting signs of slower mental processing, were most likely to develop dementia.

The results of the study were published recently in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“These results highlight the importance of gait in dementia risk assessment,” wrote corresponding author of the study Taya Collyer, a research fellow at Peninsula Clinical School at Monash University in Victoria, Australia.

As the CNN story explained: “The new study followed a group of Americans over 65 and Australians over 70 for seven years. Every other year, people in the study were asked to take cognitive tests that measured overall cognitive decline, memory, processing speed and verbal fluency.”

Twice every other year, the subjects of the study were asked to walk 3 metres, or about 10 feet. The two results were then averaged to determine the person’s typical gait.

There appears to be a correlation between walking speed and memory decline, the latter being predictive of later dementia, according to a parallel 2020 meta-analysis of nearly 9,000 American adults.

What Can We Do About It?

There are, apparently, things we can do as we age to reverse the brain shrinkage that comes hand in hand with typical ageing.

Research suggests, for example, that aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus – an oddly shaped organ embedded in the temporal lobe that is responsible for learning, consolidating memories and spatial navigation, such as the ability to remember directions, locations and orientations.

Their observations included the following:

  • Aerobic exercise training increased the volume of the right anterior hippocampus by 2%, thus reversing age-related loss in the organ by one to two years.
  • People who only did stretching exercises without the aerobic component had an approximate decline of about 1.43% over the same period.

Types of aerobic exercise can include brisk walking, swimming, running, biking, and kickboxing, as well as all the cardio machines a gym provides, such as a treadmill, elliptical trainer, rowing machine or stair climber.

It’s also worth remembering – as we have reported frequently in the past – that those exercises and sports activities which combine both aerobic and cognitive challenges, such as dancing, tennis, racketball, badminton, pickleball and squash are the best possible antidote to physical and mental atrophy. You can’t always prevent dementia, but you can certainly stack the odds in your favour.

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