Some people shuffle as they walk, taking it easy. And others walk fast no matter where they are going, always in a hurry. While it may not mean much when you’re younger, research conducted over the last few years says that walking speed and its connection to dementia may indicate whether you get dementia as you age.
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe several brain diseases that affect memory, thinking, and behavior. The leading cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Worldwide, the estimate for people with dementia is about 47 million. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number is projected to triple by 2050.
Dementia not only affects those with it, but it has a profound effect on family members, especially those who are the caregivers. And in countries where awareness is limited or not understood, dementia according to WHO can result in stigmatization and lack of care, placing hardships on both the individual, family, and society.
“‘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….'” Dr. Andrea Rosso, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.[i]
Joe Verghese, M.B.B.S, the lead author of a gait and dementia study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine said he noticed early in his research career that if an older person slowly walked their cognitive tests were usually abnormal. His observations led him to the idea of a more straightforward clinical assessment tool: Using a stopwatch to measure how slow a person walked could help doctors in many settings diagnose pre-dementia.
For one, a simpler test could be used in areas where technology and other medical resources are limited. This example is one reason why gait measurement as an early indicator of dementia is essential. Early diagnosis can also lead to finding what may be causing the dementia, which can result in early treatment that may delay or prevent a decline in cognitive abilities.
Recent research at the University of Pittsburgh also showed that a slow gait could be an indicator of dementia. The study at the University of Pittsburgh revealed that participants whose walking slowed just by 0.1 seconds per year had a 47 percent chance of cognitive impairment risk.
While the number doesn’t seem like much, Dr. Andrea Rosso, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said that even small changes in walking speed can add up over the years. “‘A fraction of a second is subtle, but over 14 years, or even less, you would notice,’ she said in a statement.”[ii]
The University of Pittsburgh study also looked at the hippocampus which is the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. Slow walkers with cognitive impairment had shrinkage in the hippocampus.
“‘Our assessment method could enable many more people to learn if they’re at risk for dementia since it avoids the need for complex testing and doesn’t require that the test be administered by a neurologist. The potential payoff could be tremendous—not only for individuals and their families, but also in terms of healthcare savings for society.'” Joe Verghese, M.B.B.S, a professor of medicine at Brooklyn’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.[iii]
Both Dr. Russo and Dr. Verghese stressed that measuring gait alone is not enough to establish a diagnosis of dementia. The slow gait measurement is used along with other clinical assessment tools like asking questions designed to measure memory and cognition. Slow walking can be a result of other diseases not related to dementia, such as arthritis, injury, or other health problems.
However, once a dementia diagnosis is made, then possible underlying causes can be investigated. Dr. Verghese gives the example of a connection between cardiovascular disease and brain health. Many of the health issues that contribute to heart disease also reduce the flow of blood to the brain and increase the risk for dementia. Also, heart-related problems are treatable, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, etc.
While the speed at which someone walks does slow with age, it should not be assumed that it’s only due to aging especially if there are also cognitive issues and a slow gait progresses over time. At the same time, some health issues that could lead to dementia are treatable.
10 facts on dementia (April 2017). Retrieved from
Borreli, Lizette. Walking Speed May Predict Dementia Risk: Slow Gait Linked To Poor Brain Health Via Shrinking Hippocampus (July 3, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.medicaldaily.com/walking-speed-may-predict-dementia-risk-slow-gait-linked-poor-brain-health-419756.
New Test for Pre-Dementia. Slow Walking Speed and Memory Complaints Can Predict Dementia. Article
[i] Borreli, Lizette, Walking Speed May Predict Dementia Risk: Slow Gait Linked To Poor Brain Health Via Shrinking Hippocampus. Web.
[iii] New Test for Pre-Dementia. Slow Walking Speed and Memory Complaints Can Predict Dementia. Web.