How quickly or slowly we walk offers many clues about our health—from blood pressure to heart rate. New research suggests yet another clue: A slowing gait or walking pace could be an early sign of cognitive decline and dementia.
Researchers from Australia studied nearly 17,000 relatively healthy adults over age 65 who lived in Australia and the United States. They found that, from 2010 to 2017, people who walked 5% slower or more each year and showed signs of slower mental processing/cognitive function were most likely to develop dementia.
The risk was the highest in those with both gait and memory decline.
“These results highlight the importance of including gait speed in a dementia risk assessment, and suggest that dual decline in gait speed and memory measure may be the best combination,” Michele Callisaya, PhD, corresponding author of the study, physiotherapist at Monash University and Peninsula Health, and an NHMRC Boosting Dementia Leadership Fellow, told Verywell via email.
Callisaya added because gait speed is quick and inexpensive to measure, it could easily be incorporated into primary care or specialist visits.
Callisaya and her colleagues followed a group of Australians over 70 years old and Americans over 65 for nearly seven years. Participants were asked to take cognitive tests that calculated overall cognitive decline, processing speed, memory, and verbal fluency every other year.
They were also instructed to measure their ability to walk at least 3 meters (about 10 feet) twice every other year. The researchers then took the two results and averaged them together to determine the person’s typical walking speed.
Researchers found “dual decliners”—those who declined in both cognition and gait speed over the life of the study—had the highest increased risk of dementia.
“Gait decliners” were defined as those who walked slower by 0.05 meters per second or more per year. “Cognitive decliners” performed the worst on cognitive tests year over year.
“It is not surprising that those who decline in memory are at greater risk of dementia. However, the addition of gait speed (to memory decline) appears to add to this increase in risk,” Callisaya said.
She noted the reason why dual decliners are at the highest risk for dementia could be that gait speed is capturing cognitive domains other than memory, such as executive functions.
There are a number of reasons why a slower walking pace over time could indicate early signs of dementia. For example, slow walking speed may be due to a lack of physical activity, obesity, or even diabetes, which are risk factors for dementia.
“Slowing of gait speed is potentially capturing the accumulation of chronic disease and its effect on the brain,” Callisaya said.
Another reason could be that walking is a reflection of what’s going on in the brain, Joe Verghese, MD, MS, FRCPI, a professor of neurology, medicine and geriatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told Verywell. Verghese was not involved with the study.
Verghese said if there’s pathology developing in the brain due to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or dementia, this could manifest not only in cognitive functions like poor memory, poor attention or difficulty remembering things, but also in physical function.
“Gait slowing is not only a marker for dementia, but it also predicts other highly relevant outcomes like frailty and disability,” he said.
To prevent a slower gait, whether for yourself or a loved one, Callisaya said it’s important to exercise, eat a healthy and balanced diet, maintain social connections, sleep well, and control blood pressure.
Exercise, in particular, is an excellent way to maintain gait speed because it can help with balance and strength, she added.
Verghese said caregivers and loved ones could also engage in cognitively and mentally stimulating activities like puzzles, cards, and strategy games to keep the brain active.
“A healthy mind is also a healthy body, so you need to focus on both,” he said.
If you notice a loved one who is walking more slowly, Verghese recommends asking them if they are forgetting things or have difficulty remembering tasks. If they answer yes, caregivers can consider bringing their loved one to the doctor for cognitive function screenings and tests.
Exercising daily, eating a well-balanced diet, getting quality sleep, maintaining social connections and engaging in cognitively stimulating activities are some things you can do to maintain a healthy heart, body and brain. Following healthy lifestyle habits is also a good way to maintain walking speed, which can be an early indicator of cognitive decline and dementia.