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Special Reports October 2017 Issue

The Link Between Your Walking Pace and Aging Well

As you age, your normal walking speed can provide a peek into your overall health. Regular physical activity is important to help keep up your pace.

Walking may seem like a pretty simple activity. But, several different parts of your body are involved, like your heart, lungs, nerves, muscles and bones. So, your walking pace may slow if you're having a problem in one or more of these parts of the body. Experts are finding it's helpful to monitor changes in walking speed over time so that potential problems can be addressed earlier. And, working to preserve your walking (gait) speed as you age, including by staying physically active, may support your quality of life as you age.

"A person's usual walking speed can tell us many things, such as long-term risk of falling, breaking a bone, being hospitalized and ultimately how much longer a person will likely live," says Roger A. Fielding, PhD, director of Tufts' HNRCA Nutrition, Exercise, Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory. "Some geriatric clinics are starting to check walking speed because they're beginning to realize it can provide an overall look at how someone is really doing."

A Vital Sign:

"Walking speed, like other vital signs (such as blood pressure and pulse), is an indicator of other things that are going on in the body," says Stacy Fritz, PhD, PT, director of the physical therapy doctorate program at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "Once we’ve identified that walking speed is slowing, we can investigate why and address the underlying issue(s)."

For example, one person’s walking speed may be slowing because of diabetes-related nerve damage in the feet. Another person may be walking more slowly due to loss of muscle mass and strength. And in some cases, changes in brain health may contribute to slower walking pace.

Walking & Your Brain:

As people age, it's common for both their cognitive (brain) function and their walking to slow down. Scientists are investigating the association.

Walking time. Research suggests moderate-intensity physical activity like walking may help decrease age-related shrinkage (decline in volume) in the brain, including the hippocampus, compared to inactivity. The hippocampus is important for cognitive functions like memory and thinking, among other tasks. It’s estimated the hippocampus shrinks by about 1% per year between the ages of 60 to 90.

A new study published in Neurobiology of Aging looked at 141 initially well-functioning older adults (ages 70–79). Those who did better keeping up the amount of time they spent walking per week over a 10-year period (as reported annually) had less shrinkage of their hippocampus. They also had a smaller decline in cognitive ability. This was regardless of walking speed and the amount of walking reported initially.

However, the study wasn't the type that can prove cause and effect. It could be that lagging brain function and underlying brain shrinkage were among the reasons why some people walked less.

Walking speed. "Physical activity is good for your brain, but whether improving your walking speed could actually improve cognition is uncertain," says Andrea Rosso, PhD, MPH, who leads the Brain, Environment, Aging and Mobility Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. "It could be that we see an association between a decline in walking speed and cognition because these functions are controlled, in part, by the same section of the brain." That’s what Rosso and her colleagues found in a recent study published in Neurology.

They checked the walking speed of 175 initially healthy older adults (ages 70 to 79) periodically for 14 years. Everyone’s walking speed slowed over that time. But, those whose walking speed slowed in a 6-meter test by 0.1 seconds more per year than their peers were 47% more likely to have developed cognitive (memory and thinking) impairment.

Brain scans completed toward the end of the study showed that the right side of the hippocampus was smaller than expected (suggesting shrinkage) in people with both a greater decline in walking speed and cognitive impairment. Not only is this part of the brain important in memory and thinking, it’s also important in spatial orientation (like your ability to orient your body in the surrounding environment or navigate a route). Rosso says it’s uncertain what was driving the changes in the brain, but high blood pressure is one possibility. Hypertension was associated with both cognitive impairment and slowed walking in the study. Stay tuned for more research in this area.

Next: Page 2: Checking Walking Speed, Walking Better and Sticking With It

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