Elderly people who start to walk at a slower pace could be showing early signs of dementia, it has been confirmed. Experts have believed it could be an indicator for a long time, but now research has corroborated the observation with evidence and explained the reasons behind it.
Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public health discovered that a slow walking pace can be related to shrinking of the right hippocampus. This part of the brain is not just associated with the ability to keep good posture, but also memory, and thus provides the link to dementia.
The implications of the 14-year study include suggestions that the walking speeds of older people should be measured. Such a move could offer an early diagnosis in cases where changes are detected over time. It is important to spot dementia early, as there is no cure for the condition as yet, only methods of slowing its onset.
Andrea Rosso, assistant professor at the university, said: “Prevention and early treatment may hold the key to reducing the global burden of dementia, but the current screening approaches are too invasive and costly to be widely used. Our study required only a stopwatch, tape and an 18-foot-long hallway, along with about five minutes of time once every year or so.”
To carry out the study, 175 people aged between 70 and 79 had regular assessments over the years. They were all in good health at the beginning of the research and had what is classed as normal mental function. Brain scans and the sharpness of their mental state were recorded again at the end of the study period.
The only area of the brain to be found to have shrunk in those whose gait slowed was the right hippocampus. It is responsible for memory, spatial awareness and the ability to navigate physical space in motion. Despite all of the participants walking slower as they aged, those 0.1 seconds a year less rapid than their peers were found to have a 47 per cent greater chance of struggling cognitively.
Professor Rosso noted that while a fraction of a second is barely perceptible, it becomes more apparent over the course of 14 years. She added that families should not dismiss changes in walking speed, just as GPs should recognise it as a possible cognitive issue, as opposed to something merely mechanical.