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Walking Speed May Signal Alzheimer’s Risk

Even before declines in cognitive abilities are noticed, changes in gait could be early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Small changes in how a person walks, like a slower walking speed or more variable stride, could signal Alzheimer’s disease even before mental declines take their toll.

Several preliminary studies, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, show that changes in gait may be linked to memory disorders and dementia, providing a potential method for earlier diagnosis of this debilitating disease.

Researchers used different methods to measure various aspects of the participants’ gait, including stride length, cadence (steps per minute), and speed of walking. They also grouped people based upon their cognitive abilities—such as healthy mental functioning, mild cognitive impairment, and dementia.

Walking more slowly and having a shorter stride length were both associated with a decline in cognitive abilities, as well as an increased risk of having symptoms of dementia. One study also found that walking slower was linked to smaller brain volume, including in an area related to memory.

Walking ability may work well as an early signal of Alzheimer’s disease because “walking and movements require a perfect and simultaneous integration of multiple areas of the brain,” study researcher Dr. Rodolfo Savica told USA Today. The disease affects the communication between those areas, which shows up in how a person walks.

This type of testing, which has yet to be approved for wide-scale use, is not meant to replace current neurological exams. Instead, it could help busy doctors identify patients sooner for further testing.

One of the studies at the conference also showed that it was possible, and maybe even more accurate, to measure walking speed in the patients’ own homes using motion sensors. 

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