If you’ve ever cared for an older adult, you are all too familiar with the fact that individuals tend to slow down both mentally and physically as they age. This is evident in many ways: not being as quick-witted, taking longer to hear and understand something said to them, moving much slower than they ever did.
Now, though, researches all over the world are wondering what comes first: a decline in gait speed or the cognitive decline. One such study out of the University of Pittsburgh suggests that regularly measuring an older adult’s gait speed can lead to detecting memory loss early in the onset. At the beginning of the study, 175 adults were assessed with brain scans, a battery of neurocognitive screenings and with a timed 18-foot walk. All participants were deemed healthy at the beginning of this study. For the next 14 years, the subjects were reevaluated annually with the same measurement tools. Over time, those participants that slowed down on that 18-foot walk also suggested a cognitive decline on the neurocognitive screenings. Furthermore, their brain scans showed the shrinkage of a crucial brain structure related to memory-the hippocampus. The hippocampus was the only brain structure where researchers found shrinkage related to decline in both gait and cognition.
Across the pond in the United Kingdom, researchers from various hospitals and universities collaborated two examine how gait and cognition are related. Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, the walking speeds of older adults were cross referenced with individuals with a neurological condition. Not only did this comparison confirm the same hypothesis as the University of Pittsburgh Study, it also illuminated another fact: people who experience a more rapid decline in their speed of walking in a two-year time frame were at an even greater risk for developing a dementia.
What’s not included in either of these studies is the reason for these correlations. This writer hypothesizes that a slowing of the gait means reduced vascular function, which in turn leads to fewer protective factors against brain health. It has long been concluded that good heart health = good brain health. Additionally, maintaining an active lifestyle stimulates the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.