U of A research identifies walking speed as predictor of dementia

While cognitive decline has long been associated with dementia, researchers have discovered that gait is an equally significant predictive factor.


A progressive decline in walking speed may be linked with a higher likelihood of developing dementia, especially when it is accompanied by cognitive decline, according to a new study. (Photo: Getty Images)

Problems with memory and cognition have long been identified as a predictor of dementia, but now researchers have identified a crucial physical indicator that warrants equal attention—gait speed, or how fast a person walks. 

Manuel Montero-Odasso at Western University, Richard Camicioli at the University of Alberta and their collaborators found that when someone has a decline in gait speed combined with a decline in cognition, that person—known as a dual decliner—has about a 50 per cent risk of progression to dementia.

While problems with memory may be apparent to an individual and those around them, it is much more difficult to identify a physical decline. 

“Nobody carries a stopwatch to see how quickly they’re running or walking,” said Camicioli, a professor of medicine and member of the U of A’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute

Camicioli noted that researchers have certain thresholds, such as walking under one metre per second, but the easiest thing to look out for is a decline in mobility.

“What I tell people to keep in mind, if they’re getting worse and having more trouble with mobility, similar to the cognitive problems, if it’s consistent, if it’s progressive, those are the things that would make us worry that this is actually something that has a cause,” he said.

Though there is currently no cure for dementia, the researchers identified common traits among dual decliners that could prove modifiable and, if treated, might slow progression. These include vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are both treatable and can be addressed with the help of a clinician. 

Camicioli emphasized that the recently published study was not a treatment trial, but the data suggest treating these traits may play a large part in preventing future decline.

“The big message is to see your family doctor, and don’t accept cognitive decline. We’d add to this the new message is, don’t accept physical decline either,” said Camicioli. 

“There are things to do, whether it’s exercise or treating factors like hypertension and cholesterol. I think there’s a lot of attention being paid to identify people at risk, to intervene so people can better take care of their health.”

The study, “Dual Decline in Gait Speed and Cognition Is Associated With Future Dementia: Evidence for a Phenotype,” was published in Age and Ageing.