If You Do This While Walking, It May Be an Early Dementia Sign, New Study Says

New research suggests you pay attention to this potential symptom on your next stroll.

For many of us, daily walks are the only real exercise we get. Thankfully, this low-impact workout is one of the best ways to stay fit, particularly for older adults. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), brisk walking is one of the key components to maintaining endurance as we get older, helping to keep both our heart and lungs healthy. But the next time you head out for a stroll—or even a walk from your car to the store—there is something you should pay attention to, as it could be linked to dementia. Read on to find out what symptom could be hiding in your gait.

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Research has looked into how to predict and prevent dementia.

senior woman with caregiver and cup of tea
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Dementia is one of the more pressing concerns that comes with age. With no cure for the disease and minimal treatment options, we're eager to take any preventative measure possible. Some studies have suggested that that adding different foods or drinks to your diet, like cups of tea or fresh cranberries, could be effective, while other data suggests getting active to ward off cognitive decline.

Walking is one option, and a study published in 2021 suggested that walking just three times a week can reduce your risk of developing the disease. But no matter where or why you're walking, a more recent study cautions you to pay attention to your pace.

Your walking speed could predict dementia.

senior citizen couple walking in park
Ivica Drusany / Shutterstock

If you notice that your daily walk around the neighborhood is taking a bit longer to complete, it could be cause for concern, a new study suggests. According to findings published on May 31 in JAMA Network Open, older adults who had an annual decline in gait speed, coupled with signs of cognitive decline, had an increased risk of developing dementia. And those who had a slower walking pace year after year along with declining memory specifically had the highest risk.

There has been increasing evidence that a decline in motor function (and gait speed in particular) may very well be an early indicator of cognitive decline and dementia, which could be due to "underlying shared risk factors," researchers said. These risk factors include heart disease and diabetes, among others. Because an increased dementia risk was seen for those who walked slower and also had cognitive decline, researchers from the present study say gait speed should be used in dementia risk screening assessments to make them more comprehensive.

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The large study included participants from both Australia and the U.S.

older woman taking cognitive memory test
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The study enrolled nearly 17,000 "relatively healthy" adults from Australia, where participants were over the age of 70, and from the U.S., where participants were over 65. Investigators followed these adults from 2010 to 2017, undergoing different cognitive tests at baseline and at years one, three, five, and seven. To measure gait speed, participants had face-to-face visits at baseline and years two, four, six, and seven. During these visits, they were asked to complete two walks, both roughly 10 feet in distance, with speed from both walks averaged during analysis.

Based on these results, participants were classified as either dual decliners, gait decliners only, cognitive decliners only, and nondecliners. When looking at participants who did go on to develop dementia, researchers found that these "dual decliners" had a higher risk than individuals in the other three groups.

This is not the first study to observe this association.

doctor consulting elderly patient
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Previous findings have explored pace and gait as a predictor of dementia. A Sept. 2019 study published in Alzheimer's & Dementia found that those who had been diagnosed with dementia walked differently (both slower and with shorter steps) than those without the condition, with pointed differences between those with Alzheimer's disease and those with Lewy body disease.

According to an accompanying editorial written by Joe Verghese, MD, a neurologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the present study serves a purpose by providing more support for gait assessments in older adults, which can also predict falls, frailty, and disability.

And while gait speed assessments are useful and not complicated to administer, they are not always performed. "Despite the established predictive validity of gait assessments for geriatric syndromes, an implementation barrier for routine gait assessment in clinics exists that needs to be addressed to improve the care of older patients," Verghese said. "Routing annual assessments of gait speed and cognition will need to be established in clinical settings to identify dual decliners."

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