Slower Walkers Have Older Brains and Bodies at 45

A new study shows that people with a lower walking speed at the age of 45 have accelerated aging of both their bodies and their brains.

Using a 19-measure scale, researchers at Duke University found that in slower walkers, their lungs, teeth and immune systems tended to be in worse shape than the people who walked faster. MRI exams showed several indications that their brains were also older.

“The thing that’s really striking is that this is in 45-year-old people, not the geriatric patients who are usually assessed with such measures,” said lead researcher Line J.H. Rasmussen, a post-doctoral researcher in the Duke University Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

“Doctors know that slow walkers in their seventies and eighties tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age,” said senior author Terrie E. Moffitt, the Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor of Psychology at Duke University, and Professor of Social Development at King’s College London. “But this study covered the period from the preschool years to midlife and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age.”

The data come from a long-term study of nearly 1,000 people who were born during a single year in Dunedin, New Zealand. The 904 research participants in the current study have been tested, quizzed, and measured their entire lives, mostly recently from April 2017 to April 2019 at age 45.

Researchers note that neurocognitive testing that these individuals took as children predicted who would become slower walkers. At age 3, their scores on IQ, understanding language, frustration tolerance, motor skills, and emotional control predicted their walking speed at age 45, according to the researchers.

MRI exams during their last assessment showed the slower walkers tended to have lower total brain volume, lower mean cortical thickness, less brain surface area and higher incidence of white matter “hyperintensities,” small lesions associated with small vessel disease of the brain. In short, their brains appeared somewhat older, they said.

Adding insult to injury, the slower walkers also looked older to a panel of eight screeners who assessed each participant’s “facial age” from a photograph, the researchers reported.

Walking speed has long been used as a measure of health and aging in geriatric patients, but what’s new in this study is the relative youth of these study subjects and the ability to see how walking speed matches up with health measures the study has collected during their lives, the researchers explained.

“It’s a shame we don’t have gait speed and brain imaging for them as children,” Rasmussen said. (The MRI was invented when they were five, but was not given to children for many years after.)

Some of the differences in health and cognition may be tied to lifestyle choices these individuals have made, the researchers noted.

But the study also suggests that there are already signs in early life of who would become the slowest walkers, Rasmussen said.

“We may have a chance here to see who’s going to do better health-wise in later life.”

The study was published in JAMA Network Open.

Source: Duke University

Photo: A long-term study has found that signs of aging may be detected by a simple walking test at age 45, and that the brains of slower walkers were different at age 3. Credit: Duke University Communications.

Walking Patterns Differ Between Alzheimer’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia

A new U.K. study reveals distinct walking variations between people with Lewy body dementia and those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers from Newcastle University in England found that people with Lewy body dementia change their walking steps more often — varying step time and length — and are asymmetric when they move, in comparison to those with Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, suggests gait could be used as a clinical biomarker for various subtypes of dementia and could lead to improved treatment plans for patients.

“The way we walk can reflect changes in thinking and memory that highlight problems in our brain, such as dementia,” said Dr. Ríona McArdle, post-doctoral researcher at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences and leader of the Alzheimer’s Society-funded study.

“Correctly identifying what type of dementia someone has is important for clinicians and researchers as it allows patients to be given the most appropriate treatment for their needs as soon as possible.”

“The results from this study are exciting as they suggest that walking could be a useful tool to add to the diagnostic toolbox for dementia.

“It is a key development as a more accurate diagnosis means that we know that people are getting the right treatment, care and management for the dementia they have.”

Currently, diagnosis of either type of dementia is made by identifying specific symptoms and, when required, referring to a brain scan.

For the study, researchers analyzed the walking patterns of 110 people, including 29 older adults whose cognition was intact, 36 with Alzheimer’s disease and 45 with Lewy body dementia.

The participants took part in a simple walking test at the Gait Lab of the Clinical Ageing Research Unit. Participants moved along a walkway — a mat with thousands of sensors — which captured their footsteps and gait patterns as they walked across it at their normal speed.

Participants with Lewy body dementia had a unique walking pattern in that they changed how long it took to take a step or the length of their steps more frequently than someone with Alzheimer’s disease, whose walking patterns rarely changed.

When a person has Lewy body dementia, their steps are more irregular, and this is associated with increased fall risk. Their walking is more asymmetric in step time and stride length, meaning their left and right footsteps are different.

Scientists found that analyzing both step length variability and step time asymmetry could accurately identify 60% of all dementia subtypes — which has never been shown before.

Further research will aim to identify how these characteristics enhance current diagnostic procedures and assess their effectiveness as a screening method. It is hoped that this tool will be available within five years.

“We know that research will beat dementia and provide invaluable support for the 850,000 people living with the condition in the UK today. It’s now vital that we continue to support promising research of this kind,” said Dr. James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society. “We look forward to seeing larger, longer studies to validate this approach and shed light on the relationship between a person’s gait and dementia diagnosis.”

Source: Newcastle University