Walking Slower Than Normal May Be a Sign of Dementia, According to New Research

To obtain their findings, the researchers followed nearly 17,000 adult participants for seven years to observe their gait and cognitive function.

mature couple walking
Photo: MoMo Productions / Getty Images

It's estimated that more than 55 million people worldwide suffer from dementia and, according to Alzheimer's Disease International, that number is slated to almost double every 20 years. For that reason, it's important to identify if you're at-risk for dementia early on so that intervention can be provided. A new study published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Network Open found that a decline in walking speed year over year may be a sign of slower mental processing and can be an early indicator that you're at risk for developing dementia.

To obtain their findings, the researchers followed a group of nearly 17,000 adults, including Americans over 65 and Australians over 70 for seven years. All participants were free of cardiovascular disease, dementia, or physical disability, and expected to live longer than five years. The subjects walking speed was measured during face-to-face visits at years zero, two, four, and six, as well as during the close-out visit. Participants completed two walks of about 10 feet at their normal pace. The average of both walks was calculated to determine the person's average gait, or pattern of walking.

In addition to measuring gait, each subject's cognitive function was also recorded. The researchers administered tests to the participants that measured their overall cognitive decline, as well as memory, processing speed, and verbal fluency at years zero, one, three, five, and during the close-out assessment.

The researchers found that people with the highest risk of dementia exhibited dual decline, meaning their walking speed and cognitive measures worsened over the course of the study. According to the research, these results show the importance of gait in dementia risk assessment and suggest that a decline in walking speed and memory may be the best combination to observe when assessing future dementia risk.

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