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Lost That Skip In Your Step? Gait is Linked to Cognitive Decline and Alzheimer’s

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenJuly 16, 2012
Gait May Be Early Indicator of Cognitive Decline

While we all my have days when we tread a little more heavy-soled as the weight of the world literally seems to put gravity’s force on our shoulders, there are actual clinic studies that show that an older person’s gait shows to be an early indicator of cognitive impairment.

The way we walk apparently speaks volumes about the way we think—revealing when there’s a problem. Makes sense. Our bodies are controlled by our minds, so when something’s off; most likely it will reflect on our entire being. Well five studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver this month reveal that when a person’s walk becomes less controlled, slower or more variable, chances are cognitive problems are the culprit. So if someone has trouble walking—other than a physical injury, of course—that same someone is probably having trouble thinking.

“Changes in walking may predate actually observable cognitive changes in people who are on their way to developing Alzheimer’s,” said Molly Wagster, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s behavioral and systems neuroscience branch.

Gait Aiding the Diagnosis of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Experts believe that gait studies may actually help doctors predict, if not diagnose, Alzheimer’s disease.

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“You can probably just watch them walk down the hall in your office and look for people who are starting to show deterioration in their gait and have no other explanation for it,” said William Thies, the chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer’s Association. “If gait begins to deteriorate, we begin to have a conversation about how is your memory.”

Apparently, when a person’s steps become shorter, with a shift to one side, it’s predicted cognitive decline could be to blame. Let’s think about this, shall we, from a plainly novice perspective? Hearing changes can affect our balance. When someone is inebriated, one of the tests is walking on a straight line. If someone has a headache, he/she often gets blurred vision which affects balance and walking. And if someone is experiencing sinus pressure, balance and walking are often a little off-kilter. So while it’s fascinating to learn that walking changes may indicate cognitive decline, it’s actually quite obvious when you think about the mind’s influence on the body’s physical output.

Gait As Indicator for Many Types of Illness

Medical professionals have studied the affect major illnesses have on gait, such as heart attack, stroke and Parkinson’s disease, but have just begun to do their research on the connections between cognition and walking. Slower walking is not just part of getting old, it’s actually a symptom that goes beyond normal aging.

“It’s like driving a car — you need an engine, a chassis and steering,” said Dr. Stephanie Studenski, an expert on walking who was not involved in the dementia studies but is a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh and the the Pittsburgh Veterans Administration. “The engine of walking is the heart, lungs and blood. The chassis is the muscles, joints and bones. And the steering is the wiring — the nervous system.”

Sometimes initial tests are not enough to display cognitive decline. For example, one 72-year-old woman’s walking test showed no problems. But when tasked with walking backwards while counting to 50, the gait become apparent.

“She teetered and wobbled on one foot,” Dr. Bridenbaugh said. “She almost tipped to the side.” And “she didn’t notice any of it,” she added. “She was mad that she didn’t remember more numbers.”

Learning from here…

No doubt concentration on one task can negatively influence progress on another. Multi-tasking is an optimal example. So the footprints to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s seen in gait need to measured carefully. Scientists are perfecting their research and more information on unveiling dementia is coming shortly, so stay tuned.

If you have any experience with gait and cognitive decline, feel free to share below. You may have never been a ‘twinkle-toes’, but even slight changes may signify a problem. Let us know what you think about this topic…

Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen

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