For years, scientists have been searching for a definitive test to predict whether someone is likely to develop dementia, but results have been inconclusive. However, now a newly-published study suggests that researchers may have found an important clue, in an unlikely source. The question is, do people want to be tested – and once diagnosed with signs of dementia, can they do anything about it?
Walking Speed Study Evaluated 1,000 Adults in Their Mid-40’s
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia present a growing crisis for the American health care system. Today nearly 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and apart from the devastating emotional toll, the cost to our economy is staggering: about $290 billion in 2019 alone. By 2050 the number of people diagnosed with the disease is projected to reach 14 million, and the annual cost of care could reach $1.1 trillion. But now researchers have shown that a measurement of how fast someone walks when they’re in their 40s can predict the likelihood of developing dementia later in life. That’s enough advance notice that there may be time to make changes that will improve their outlook.
We learned about this new test for dementia in this article just published on the HealthDay website. The title caught our attention: “How Fast You Walk Might Show How Fast You’re Aging.” It’s based on research presented on the JAMA Network Open website in which researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University took a look at data gathered from an on-going study of 1,000 people all born in roughly the same time period in the same city in New Zealand. “These people have been tested regularly since their birth in 1972-1973 regarding a wide variety of medical concerns,” says the HealthDay article, written by reporter Dennis Thompson. “This group of study participants recently turned 45, and as they did, the research team tested their walking speed by asking each to repeatedly amble down a 25-foot-long electronic pad.”
Walking Speed Matters Because Walking Involves All Your Brain and Body
The conclusion from the data was startling: “Middle-aged folks who worry about healthy aging would do well to keep an eye on their walking speed. Turns out that the walking speed of 45-year-olds is a pretty solid marker of how their brains and bodies are aging, [the] study suggests.” The bottom line is that people who walk more slowly in their mid-40s appear to be aging more rapidly than their faster peers. “They’ve lost more brain volume in middle-age than folks with a quicker walking pace, and also perform worse on physical and mental tests,” one researcher said. The slower walkers were discovered to already be exhibiting many of the signs of failing health that are regularly tested in a geriatric clinic. According to HealthDay, “The findings showed that people who were in the lowest fifth for walking speed had signs of premature and rapid aging.”
The reasons for this apparent linkage between how slowly you walk and how rapidly your brain and body are aging seems odd at first, but the more you think about it the more the idea makes sense. “It takes many body systems to have you walk well,” said researcher Dr. Stephanie Studenski from the University of Pittsburgh. “It takes a good heart, good lungs, good nervous system, good strength, good musculoskeletal system and a variety of other things. Gait speed summarizes the health of all of your body’s systems.” That’s the chief reason why geriatricians routinely measure the walking speed of patients 65 and older as a standard part of geriatric care. For seniors, geriatricians have observed that the slower a person walks, the sooner they’re likely to pass away. This new research on middle-aged people suggests that “gait tests might be valuable given at an earlier age, figuring that walking speed could serve as an early indicator of how well middle-aged people are aging,” says Thompson in HealthDay.
Walking Speed Analysis Could Prompt Early Treatment, New Therapies
The JAMA report said this new research provides “compelling evidence” that reduced walking speed in otherwise healthy 40-something adults is an important sign of diminished physical and cognitive function and an accelerated rate of aging, adding that these midlife adults are good candidates for medical intervention to prevent further cognitive decline. Many people say they are reluctant to take any test for dementia because, by the time signs of the disorder shows up, it’s usually too late to do anything about it. However, this measure of walking speed performed at mid-life could be different. “A gait test could be an easy and low-cost way for primary care doctors to test how well middle-aged patients are aging,” HealthDay reported. “Middle-aged people with a slower gait could try to slow their aging by eating healthy, exercising, quitting smoking, and maintaining better control over risk factors like high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol.”
Even more promising, people whose mid-life gait speed suggests premature aging could be tapped for early trials of drugs and anti-dementia therapies. Older patients who are already showing signs of cognitive decline are often passed over for clinical trials, and results with older adults can be difficult to assess. But one researcher expressed excitement about the prospect of testing therapies on younger patients. “If they give it to people and it speeds up their walking, we’ve really got something there,” she said.
Start Your Retirement Planning Journey with AgingOptions
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(originally reported at https://consumer.healthday.com)