A slow pace of walking in middle age could be a sign of accelerated ageing, a study has found.
An international team of experts assessed more than 900 people across 45 years, based in New Zealand, looking at their gait speed, as well as other ageing factors including facial age and IQ. They found those who walk slow in their midlife may be ageing faster.
The team found associations between gait and ageing, usually found in older age, were present in middle age too.
Slower walking was associated with other signs of accelerated ageing, like rapid deterioration of multiple organ systems and facial age.
Participants with slower gait also had lower IQs, the study found. There was a mean difference of 16 IQ points between the slowest and the fastest walkers.
The report states: “Slow gait was also associated with multiple indices of compromised structural brain integrity, including smaller total brain volume, global cortical thinning, and reduced total surface area.”
The team says the link between midlife gait speed might help give credence to the use of walking pace to predict Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Dr Clare Walton, a dementia researcher, told Sky News: “This study has shown walking speeds in midlife can be a really good indicator of how fast your brain is ageing and a good indication of how you are ageing.
“Other research last month showed that people with different types of dementia have different walking speeds and styles.
“We do not know exactly how this is all linked. We do know the causes of dementia can appear decades before the symptoms start.
“Changes in the eyes, changes in walking, changes in blood, this leads to evidence to show that if you look at the right time and with the right analysis you can see how the brain is ageing in midlife.”
She said the study shows it is “never too late and never too early” to make lifestyle changes, including a balanced diet and getting exercise.
The participants in the study were assessed at multiple points, from three-years-old up to the age of 45. Their speed was measured along an electronic walkway, and they were also tested on physical function like balance and grip strength.
Personal trainer Joe Schofield said: “In their 40s I’ve got people that are very able and active and healthy and then I’ve got the massive contrast in the people that have co-morbidities – they have issues that aren’t just necessarily fitness based, they could be health related, so it’s things like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and osteoarthritis.”
He also agreed that people in their 40s seem older if they walk slower.
The report, published on the JAMA Network, concludes: “Gait speed is more than just a geriatric index of adult functional decline; rather, it is a summary index of lifelong aging with possible origins in childhood CNS deficits.
“This helps to explain why gait can be such a powerful indicator of risk of disability and death in the elderly. It also encourages rethinking gait as not only a motoric concern, but as an integrative measure of health.”
Gait speed could be used as an early indicator tool to assess for dementia, the study says, because it’s “cheap, safe, easy to test repeatedly, and feasible to use among people in their 40s”.