Posted on Oct 21, 2019, 4 p.m.
The pace at which a person walks is used as a biomarker for neurological and physiological health in older people. A recent study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that gait speed may also be a measure of biological aging for those in their 40s.
“Doctors know that slow walkers in their seventies and eighties tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age,” explains senior author Terrie Moffitt. “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.”
This study utilized data from the longitudinal Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which closely follows a cohort of subjects since birth in the 1970s; all 904 subjects with the current age of 45 were measured for gait speed.
"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 & neuroscience.
Two hypotheses were tested: whether gait speed could reflect early signs of accelerated biological aging, and whether slow middle aged gait speed could be linked to poor neurocognitive functioning in childhood.
A distinct correlation was revealed between slower gait speed and physical and biological indicators of accelerated aging: the slowest quintile of walkers with the age of 45 displayed structural brain changes such as lower mean cortical thickness and lower total brain volume. Finding suggests that gait speed signifies accelerated biological aging for middle aged subjects as well as a marker for decline in geriatric subjects.
A correlation was discovered between neurocognitive testing at the age of 3 and gait speed walking at the age of 45 which was strong enough to be able to use cognitive scores from childhood testing to accurately predict a person’s walking speed 40 years later. At the age of 45, those that walk slower have accelerated aging on a 19 measure scale, and their lungs, teeth, and immune system tended to be in worse shape that fast walkers.
The study was limited by not having brain imaging or gait speed data from subjects at younger ages, meaning there is no clear longitudinal data tracking gait speed changes from childhood to adulthood, and it is unclear what causal mechanisms could be linking childhood neurocognitive functioning and midlife gait speed.
"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. 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."
Gait speed may be a useful indicator of health concerns in middle aged adults. This is not the only study to use walking speed as a diagnostic tool, gait analysis is suggested to identify different types of dementia in early stages of cognitive decline, and glaucoma before symptoms of visual deterioration appear.
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