Home > Dementia risk, Medical issues > Can Walking Point to Dementia?

Can Walking Point to Dementia?

Several studies, presented recently at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, suggest that the way a person walks may point to signs of emerging cognitive decline.  It has been assumed, for many years, that when an older person begins walking more slowly, it’s just a factor of increased age.  However, research is showing that this may not actually be true.

Just as a person’s gait can point to early signs of Parkinson’s disease and heart problems or a stroke, there may be connections between walking and cognitive functioning.  The ability to walk smoothly appears to decline in a parallel fashion with memory, planning activities, and processing information.  And, eventually, it may be possible for a doctor to watch a person walk down the hallway of his office and, if not diagnose that a person has dementia, at least determine that further cognitive testing is in order.

One of the studies cited involved 1,100 elderly people in Switzerland who were either cognitively intact, or had varying degrees of known cognitive impairment.  The participants walked on an electronic walkway which recorded various measurements including speed, number of strides per minute, the width of the stride, and variability in the stride.  Subjects were screened for arthritis and other physical problems, and also for height, weight, age, and sex.  Those tested walked first without any distractions, and then again while performing a cognitive task such as counting backwards.  Results showed consistently that slower, more disjointed patterns of walking while multi-tasking in this way correlated directly with the presence of Alzheimer’s.

Another large study, which was conducted at the Mayo Clinic, compared the gait of individuals who were evaluated twice, 15 months apart.  Results showed that those who walked, on the average, one second per meter slower on the second test scored half a point lower on cognitive tests.

Speaking from personal experience, I remember reading an article that advised therapists to look at something called “divided attention” when treating residents of long-term care facilities who were prone to falling.  Many times, I have seen these people referred for therapy, whereupon they work to increase range of motion, balance, strength, and all of the other things that physical therapists usually do with these people.  And, when all goals have been met, the person is discharged from therapy only to fall again a short time later.  The article suggested that it was not the physical aspect of walking that was the problem, or at least not the entire problem.  No, what is just as important is the person’s ability to walk down the hall and not become distracted by med carts, or blaringly loud televisions, or Mr. Smith’s catastrophic reaction to the unwelcome visitor in his room.  And so, those persons who are prone to fall frequently should have a cognitive evaluation as well.

Another possible area for further exploration, suggested by this research, has to do with preventing cognitive decline.  Could physical activity actually ward off dementia, or at least slow down its progression?  If slower and more erratic walking can signal cognitive deterioration, could exercises to promote fitness and coordination not only help them to walk better, but to think better?

Some definite food for thought here.

  1. August 5, 2012 at 8:46 PM

    I think exercise, along with a better diet, can absolutely slow the progression of dementia, and possibly prevent it altogether. Unfortunately, many people don’t focus on these kinds of preventative measures until it’s too late. Until we develop a more health-conscious attitude in our society, we’re just going to see rates of these diseases continue to climb.

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