Is your body trying to warn you about dementia? The link between mobility and cognitive decline

May 03, 2023
Physical changes could be an early warning sign of dementia. Source: Getty

As we get older, our bodies naturally lose muscle strength and mobility. It can become challenging to do simple tasks like standing up, walking, and sitting down.

However, a new study from Edith Cowan University has found that these physical changes could also be a warning sign of dementia.

The researchers analysed data from the Perth Longitudinal Study of Ageing in Women, which included over 1,000 women with an average age of 75.

They measured the women’s physical abilities, including grip strength and how long it took for them to stand up, walk three meters, turn around, and sit back down – also known as the timed-up-and-go (TUG) test.

The study found that slower TUG times and weaker grip strength were linked to a higher risk of developing dementia. This information is important because it means that physical changes can serve as an early warning sign for cognitive decline.

The researchers also repeated the physical examinations after five years to see if any loss of performance had occurred. They then tracked the women for 15 years and found that nearly 17 per cent of them had experienced a “dementia event,” which was either a dementia-related hospitalisation or death.

Researchers also checked to see if changes in grip strength and TUG test results over five years could predict dementia risk.

They found that older adults who experienced the largest drops in grip strength and TUG speed were two to two-and-a-half times more likely to have a dementia event, compared to those with the smallest decline in performance.

According to Dr Marc Sim, a senior researcher involved in the study, measuring grip strength using a handheld device called a dynamometer could one day be used as an indicator of brain health.

“Both grip strength and TUG tests aren’t commonly performed in clinical practice, but both are inexpensive and simple screening tools,” Dr Sim says.

“Incorporating muscle function tests as part of dementia screening could be useful to identify high-risk individuals, who might then benefit from primary prevention programs aimed at preventing the onset of the condition such as a healthy diet and a physically active lifestyle.”

Another study published by Alzheimer’s Association states that as dementia progresses, it’s common for individuals to experience a gradual loss of safe and independent mobility, which can greatly impact the quality of life.

In addition, falls become increasingly common as dementia advances, with 40 per cent to 60 per cent of individuals with advanced dementia experiencing falls each year.

According to estimates by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in 2022, there were over 400,000 people living with dementia in Australia.

This is equivalent to 15 individuals with dementia per 1,000 Australians, but the rate jumps to 84 per 1,000 Australians aged 65 and over.

As Australia’s population continues to age and grow, it’s predicted that the number of individuals with dementia will more than double by 2058, reaching 849,300 people, with 533,800 women and 315,500 men affected.

Although the exact causes of dementia are still not fully understood, there is currently no guaranteed way to prevent it. Nevertheless, it is possible to maintain brain health and reduce your risk of mobility loss.

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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