How walking speed could be linked to dementia

Jun 01, 2022
Globally, 50 million people live with dementia, a number that is predicted to triple in the next 30 years. Source: Getty

Wasn’t it Simon and Garfunkel who told us to “Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last”? Now, a new study has suggested that walking slower as you get older may be a sign of impending dementia.

An Australian and US-based research of 17,000 people, aged 65 or older, found walking slowly can be an early sign of cognitive decline.

“These findings underscore the importance of the method in assessing dementia risk,” says Daya Collier, a research fellow at Monash University School of Peninsular Medicine in Victoria, Australia.

Their research suggests that GPs and clinicians implement a simple memory and walking-speed test in their practice to help identify if an elderly person is at risk of dementia, allowing them to introduce preventative measures early on.

Though previous studies have looked into the links between a person’s cognitive decline and dementia, this is the first research that has used walking and memory tests to determine a person’s risk of dementia.

Fellow author and the director of Monash University’s National Centre for Healthy Aging, Velandia Srikanth, says these tests and treatments could also work for people facing memory difficulties.

“They would be the ones to try to make sure that their blood pressure is well controlled, that they are physically active, that they have a good diet, that they connect socially … all the good things that hold off the risk of dementia,” Srikanth said.

“We don’t have many successful treatments at the moment, but if they do come up in the future, then we’ll know who to target those treatments too.”

And while the six-year-old study paves the way for better treatment for those with dementia, this disease still places a huge strain on both patients and their families.

With over 470,000 Australians living with dementia, it is “the third-leading cause of disease burden in Australia” and although the government has invested $200 million to improve care and services for older Australians living with the disease, the total cost of hospital care for dementia is still estimated to be $160 million.

Another recent study from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland shed more light on dementia and discovered that those with a genetic risk of dementia can reduce their chance of developing the condition with seven simple lifestyle changes.

Researchers collected data from more than 11,000 people, with an average age of 54, in the US between 1987 to 2019.

As part of the Genetic Risk, Midlife Life’s Simple 7, and Incident Dementia in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, researchers developed a scoring system for each participant based on seven health factors outlined by the American Heart Association. These factors were: stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, remain physically active, control blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Participants reported their levels in all seven health factors.

For people with European ancestry, researchers found that people with the highest scores in the lifestyle factors had a lower risk of dementia across all five genetic risk groups, including the group with the highest genetic risk of dementia. They also saw similar results for people of primarily African descent.

Researcher Adrienne Tin said the findings highlighted the importance of incorporating these healthy habits in reducing dementia risk.

“The good news is that even for people who are at the highest genetic risk, living by this same healthier lifestyle are likely to have a lower risk of dementia,” Tin said.

“These healthy habits in the Life’s Simple 7 have been linked to a lower risk of dementia overall, but it is uncertain whether the same applies to people with a high genetic risk.

“Larger sample sizes from diverse populations are needed to get more reliable estimates of the effects of these modifiable health factors on dementia risk within different genetic risk groups and ancestral backgrounds.”

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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