The Takeaway: Changes In Walk Precede Alzheimer’s Disease

Something in the way you move could be an early indicator of cognitive impairment. Five studies presented at an international Alzheimer’s Association conference this month show that a person’s gait becoming slower, less controlled or more variable is often a sign of concurrent problems with thinking skills such as memory, processing info or planning and carrying out activities.

Changes in walking may predate actually observable cognitive changes in people who are on their way to developing dementia,” said Molly Wagster, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s behavioral and systems neuroscience branch.

What’s more, researchers may be able to use this discovery to develop simple tools for forecasting or even diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

Obviously there are all sorts of reasons why an older individual might experience trouble or changes in things like mobility, balance and speed. But if there is a deterioration in walking ability and “no other explanation for it … we begin to have a conversation about how is your memory,” said William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Researchers also found that even people with cognitive deficits looked normal when walking normally, but had trouble when asked to walk while performing some dual task, such as counting backwards from 50.

Another exciting report from the conference suggests a new treatment for Alzheimer’s patients could be promising. In a small study, patients’ symptoms were stabilized for three years when they were regularly injected with a mixture of antibodies collected from cognitively healthy individuals.

Study leader Norman Relkin said they don’t want to create false hope or premature use of this product — which is already on the market for treating children with immune deficiencies — but that he and colleagues are “very enthusiastic” about the results.

But other experts say hopes for this treatment may be misplaced.

The enthusiastic reaction from some quarters … (has) as much to do with the distressing shortage of effective treatments for the disease as the actual results,” writes Guardian health editor Sarah Boseley.

Not only was the study population very small, but subjects were all in the early stages of the younger-onset, genetically inherited form of the disease that only comprises about 3 percent of total Alzheimer’s cases.

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Photo: Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images