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Walking speed may predict dementia risk

June 13, 2012

Scientists have discovered a potential sign for dementia later in life, and it has little to do with mental function. Researchers say certain changes in how fast a person walks as they get older could actually be an early indicator of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a precursor to Alzheimer's disease.

The study, which was recently published in the journal Neurology, looked at the walking speed of 93 adults over the age of 70. Fifty-four of the subjects had no cognitive impairment while 31 had non-memory MCI and eight had memory-related MCI.

After taking memory and thinking tests and having their walking speed measured, scientists monitored the participants for three years. At the end of the study, researchers determined the subjects with non-memory MCI were nine times more likely to be slow walkers. Although just preliminary findings, the results may hold important meaning for healthy aging.

"If we can detect dementia at its earliest phases, then we can work to maintain people's independence, provide treatments and ultimately develop ways to prevent the disease from developing," said study author Hiroko Dodge. "Our in-home monitoring approach has a lot of potential to be used for sustaining independence of the elderly."

This is not the first study to suggest a link between walking and Alzheimer's disease. Research from 2010 suggests that walking even as little as three-quarters of a mile a day can help prevent cognitive decline, according to WebMD. In fact, University of Pittsburgh radiologist Cyrus Raji says walking as little as five miles a week may reduce brain atrophy by around 50 percent.

The need to address Alzheimer's and dementia is especially important. The disease is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the number of cases is expected to increase in the coming decades.