Faster Walkers May Stay Healthier and Live Longer

A new study links slower gait to faster decline in mental and physical health.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

PublicDomainArchive/Pixabay, used with permission
Sometimes, faster is better.
Source: PublicDomainArchive/Pixabay, used with permission

Slow walking is a sign of aging associated with age-related medical conditions like heart disease, dementia, diminished response to rehabilitation, and early death. That’s why gait speed is tested and used as an indicator in geriatric health care in order to determine an older patient’s health status and ability to function. A new study from Duke University looked at gait speed and cognition in healthy middle-aged adults in their 40’s and in children, to understand the effects of slow and fast walking at a younger age on later health outcomes.

The researchers predicted that slow walking speed in midlife is predictive of advanced biological aging and poor neurocognitive functioning. They also suspected that walking speed and its ultimate effects on brain and body health not only show effects in midlife but is likely associated with brain development in childhood.

The researchers interviewed, examined and reviewed the records of 938 middle-aged (45-year-old) study participants, all of whom had been assessed at birth and then again at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32, and 38. The pace of aging was measured for each person at ages 26, 32, 38, and 45, using measures such as body mass index, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, and cardiorespiratory fitness. General physical functioning was assessed by self-reporting, along with exercises for balance, visual-motor coordination, grip strength, and other standard tests. The researchers used three different conditions to assess walking speed, including walking at a normal pace from a standing start, walking at a normal pace while reciting alternate letters of the alphabet aloud, and walking as fast as safely possible. 

At age 45, accelerated aging was also assessed by facial age, rated by an independent panel using standardized photos taken of each participant’s face. At this final assessment, standard neuroimaging procedures were also used to evaluate brain structure. The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-IV, which assesses working memory, perceptual reasoning, and verbal comprehension, was used along with other standardized tests to measure neurocognitive function (executive functioning, verbal fluency, and memory). As children, study participants had taken standardized tests of intelligence, motor skills, and receptive language and were rated for emotional and behavioral regulation.

The results of this study confirmed the researchers’ theory that walking speed is not only an indicator of health status in older people, but also predicts future health and functioning in younger people. Overall, midlife study participants who walked slowly also showed signs of accelerated aging and cognitive decline

In fact, those who walked slower had been aging five years faster between the ages of 26 and 45 than their fast-walking counterparts. The slow-walkers’ faces were also rated as looking older. Those with slower gait had smaller brain volume and smaller total brain surface at age 45, as well as poorer working memory, poorer perceptual reasoning, and poorer verbal comprehension, and generally performed worse on all tests of IQ and neurocognitive functioning. The study authors found a mean difference of 16 IQ points between the slowest and fastest walkers. A review of neurocognitive testing performed in participants’ childhood indicated that poorer brain health at the age of 3 and ultimate declines between childhood and adulthood were also associated with slower gait and accelerated aging in adulthood.

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Rasmussen LJ Harmann, Caspi A, Ambler A. Association of neurocognitive and physical function with gait speed in midlife. JAMA Network 2019; 2(10): e1913123.doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.13123