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   Jul 03

Walking slowly is an indicator of dementia brought on by brain shrinkage, scientists discover for the first time

Walking at a slower pace in older people has been linked with dementia

People who exhibit this show a shrinkage of their right hippocampus in the brain

Area controls memory and spatial awareness, explaining link between the two

Dementia could be treated earlier if doctors regularly measure walking speeds

The number of people with dementia set to rise to 2 million by 2051, say experts

Scientists have long believed that a slower walking pace in older people may be linked to dementia.

Now a team of researchers have identified the changes in the brain which explain why.

They discovered that people who developed slowed walking show a shrinkage of their right hippocampus.

This area of the brain, which is similar in shape to a seahorse, is primarily associated with memory and the ability to maintain posture.

The findings suggest dementia could be treated earlier if doctors regularly measure the walking speeds of older patients and watch for changes over time.

That’s according to a 14-year study carried out by experts at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Older patients could be assessed for their walking speeds to treat dementia earlier (file)

There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over one million by 2025. This will soar to two million by 2051.

‘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,’ explained Andrea Rosso, assistant professor at the university.

‘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,’ she noted in a university news release.

Key findings

For the study, the researchers looked at 175 people, aged 70 to 79, who all had good health and normal mental function at the start of the study period.

The participants all had regular assessments over the years, involving the participants walking an 18-foot stretch of hallway while they were timed.

At the conclusion of the study, they were tested again for their mental sharpness and were given brain scans.

The right hippocampus was the only area of the brain found to shrink in relation to both gait slowing and cognitive impairment.


A study in Australia last year has shown that resistance weight training can boost brain function in seniors at increased risk of dementia.

Researchers at the University of Sydney looked at the effects of the training on a group of 100 patients over 55 with mild cognitive impairment.

A quarter of the patients were prescribed weight lifting sessions twice weekly for six months, working to at least 80 per cent of their peak strength.

The team found that as the pensioners got stronger, their global cognition improved ‘significantly’ after the resistance training.

And the physical training was shown to be more beneficial than brain training alone, and lasted for a year after the training ended.

It controls memory and spatial orientation, the ability to maintain your posture in relation to the physical space around you when at rest and during motion.

All the participants walked slower over time, but those who slowed by 0.1 seconds more per year than their peers were 47 percent more likely to struggle cognitively.

The finding held even when the researchers took into account slowing caused by muscle weakness, knee pain and diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Slow walkers should be assessed

‘A fraction of a second is subtle, but over 14 years, or even less, you would notice,’ said Professor Rosso.

‘People should not just write off these changes in walking speed. It may not just be that grandma’s getting slow – it could be an early indicator of something more serious.

‘Typically when physicians notice a slowing gait in their patients, they’ll consider it a mechanical issue and refer the patient to physical therapy.

‘What we’re finding is that physicians also should consider that there may be a brain pathology driving the slowing gait and refer the patient for a cognitive evaluation.’

The findings were published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Source: Daily Mail

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