Developing accurate and affordable diagnostic tools for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is as important as the scientific studies that seek a medical breakthrough to delay or eliminate the disease. And as Alzheimer’s rates continue to increase around the world in aging populations, the search becomes more urgent to find and develop inexpensive diagnostic tools that can detect the disease as early as possible. One such diagnostic tool that measures walking speed has potential practical application for medical professionals in poorer countries with less access to expensive diagnostic technologies that test for dementia.
An article in the Washington Post described the research — conducted at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Montefiore Medical Center — which sought to determine whether or not people with slower gaits could be an indicator of dementia risk, or if they were more likely to suffer cognitive decline than those who did not have a slower gait. According to the article, lead researcher and Yeshiva University neurology professor Joe Verghese and a team of researchers used a simple test that measured walking speed and cognitive abilities on thousands of people in multiple countries. All of the study participants were at least 60 years old and free of dementia. The team then followed the subjects for 12 years, performing annual evaluations to see how many of them developed dementia.
Use of Walking Speed as Diagnostic Tool for Alzheimer’s Onset
Known as the Einstein study, researchers found that nearly ten percent of the study participants “suffered from motoric cognitive risk syndrome (MCR), a recently identified condition characterized by slowing walking speeds and cognitive lapses. They also found that the condition was a factor for cognitive decline. Walking speeds were measured in most cases by timing subjects over a short distance.” The results of the study suggest that when older people’s walking speed “begins to slow and they also have cognitive complaints, they are more than twice as likely to develop dementia within 12 years.”
While this study was able to establish a link between slower gait and dementia risk, Verghese was quick to say that “slower walking speed is not by itself sufficient to determine whether a person has pre-dementia, as people’s gait can be affected by common age-related ailments such as arthritis or inner ear problems that affect one’s balance.” However, thinking about gait and cognitive abilities, Verghese also added that “Even though we think of walking as a automatic process, it really isn’t. When you’re walking out in the real world, it’s a complex action.”
Using this simple walking speed test may help doctors to diagnose dementia earlier, making it an important yet inexpensive and easily measured diagnostic tool.
April 2017 Update: Slow walking speed may predict Alzheimer’s onset, according to a study from University Hospital Toulouse in France. The study found that elderly men and women with memory problems who walked slowly were at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
December 2015 Update: A recent study indicates that exercise may boost brain function in people with a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s.