Slow Walking May Be a Sign of Early Alzheimer’s

Two women speed walking

Good news for speed walkers. Many studies have shown that walking and other exercise helps protect the brain as we age. Now a new study finds that slow walking speed may be a sign of early Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers in France studied 128 people in their 70s who did not have dementia but were considered high risk because they had concerns about their memories. The participants had scans to measure amyloid plaques in their brains. (The buildup of these plaques is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.) They also took tests of memory and daily-living skills.

The scientists then measured the walking speed of study subjects by timing how fast they could walk 13 feet at a normal pace. They found that those who had the highest level of plaque in their brains walked about 10 percent slower, according to results published in the journal Neurology. The relationship between the plaque and walking speed held true even when the scientists adjusted for age, education level and amount of memory problems.

“This study suggests that measuring gait speed may be a valid screening tool in the future to identify those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a researcher with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who was not involved in the study. “The benefit of using gait speed as a screening tool is that it can be done easily in almost all clinical settings and requires minimal expertise.”

Lead author Natalia del Campo said that her study doesn’t prove the buildup of plaque causes you to walk more slowly. The relationship could be due to other factors — such as heart disease — that influence both plaque buildup and walking speed. Or it could be that slower walking is a sign that our brains are more vulnerable to the accumulation of plaques. Finally, it’s possible that the amyloid is having a toxic effect on the parts of the brain involved in motor function. Del Campo’s best guess? That the answer lies in a combination of all those explanations.

“People should not be worried just because they get slower at walking,” she wrote in an email from France, where she is with the Toulouse University Hospital. “There are many other causes of slow walking in older adults.” The average walking speed in the study was one meter per second, which actually falls into the range of normal speed of older adults.

Although Del Campo said her study doesn’t show that walking faster will minimize risk of Alzheimer’s disease, there may be other good reasons to pick up the pace. “There is evidence that high levels of physical activity and cardiovascular fitness — two parameters closely linked to gait speed — have protective effects against brain aging,” she said.

Liu-Ambrose said her research has also shown that exercise that benefits the brain is connected to walking speed, and previous studies have found that slow walking is a predictor of early death. It turns out that walking, which seems so simple, is actually quite complex and requires a good deal of brainpower. But it is certainly possible for older people to improve their walking pace — and walking even a little bit faster seems to have health benefits.

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“I do think we need to think of our entire body as a unit and that there is a very clear bidirectional relationship between our physical and brain health,” she said.

Quick test: Walking speed

Time yourself — or family members — walking four meters. If it takes you more than 6.21 seconds, you may want to see a doctor about potential health issues. Ready for a longer test? Find a 400-meter track and walk at a normal speed. If once around the track takes more than six minutes, let your doctor know.

Photo: Susan Chiang/iStock

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