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.