Signs of aging detected by a simple walking test at age 45

A new study has shown that the speed at which persons over 45 years of age walk could be an indicator of their brain and body age. The team of researchers from Duke University found that persons who walked slowly were more likely to have “accelerated aging” compared to those who walked faster. The study titled, “Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Function With Gait Speed in Midlife” was published in the latest issue of the JAMA Network Open.

Image Credit: Athapet Piruksa / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Athapet Piruksa / Shutterstock

The team with the first author Line J.H. Rasmussen, a post-doctoral researcher in the Duke University department of psychology & neuroscience, found that on a 19 point scale that they prepared, slow walkers were more likely to have worse teeth and immune systems and also had worse lung functions compared to fast walkers. Not surprisingly, the slow walkers were in pooere shape compared to faster walkers, they explained. Rasmussen, in a statement said, “The thing that’s really striking is that this is in 45-year-old people, not the geriatric patients who are usually assessed with such measures.”

In a landmark finding, the team tested three year olds with neurocognitive tests and the IQ scores at three, language understanding, motor skills and emotional control and frustration tolerance of these toddlers could predict their walking age later in life at 45. Senior author of the study, Terrie E. Moffitt, the Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor of Psychology at Duke University, and Professor of Social Development at King’s College London, said in a statement, “Doctors know that slow walkers in their seventies and eighties tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age. But this study covered the period from the preschool years to midlife, and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age.”

For this study thus the team had to follow up a group of nearly 1,000 individuals born in Dunedin, New Zealand in a single year and tested them as they grew older. The last tests applied were on 904 individuals between April 2017 and April 2019 at age 45. At age 45 they underwent MRI scans of their brains and it was noted that those who walked slowly had lesser brain mass compared to the fast walkers.

Total brain volume, mean cortex thickness, brain surface area were all reduced in slow walkers. In addition the white matter of their brains had more “hyperintensities” compared to fast walkers, the researchers noted. These hyperintensities were actually small lesions that were associated with blood vessels of the brain. The brains of slow walkers, wrote the researchers, were older than those of fast walkers the team found.

All the participants underwent physical tests and neurological and cognitive tests as children and every couple of years till they were 45. They noted that performance of the children at age three in intelligence, language and motor skills tests predicted their speed of walking and health when they were 45. They wrote that those children that had an average IQ 12 points lesser than others were slower walkers. These slow walkers had an average gait speed of 1.2m/s compared to fast walkers at an average speed of 1.75m/s.

In a further test the individuals’ facial age was also determined. Slow walkers tended to appear older to a panel of eight persons who screened the photographs. Rasmussen explained that speed of walking has been a measure of health for the elderly in several studies. This is the first time that it is being used for persons as young as 45. He added that this study followed them up for a long time to see the impact of speed of walking on their health. Rasmussen said, “It’s a shame we don’t have gait speed and brain imaging for them as children.” He added that when these individuals were children MRI had just been invented and it was a while before children could undergo MRI scans. However some signs of these children becoming slow walkers later in life were present he said. Rasmussen said. “We may have a chance here to see who’s going to do better health-wise in later life.” Several lifestyle choices could be responsible for slow walking and health of the slow walkers, he concluded.

The researchers explained that low calorie diets and several drugs could help slow the process of aging. Walking speed could help doctors determine the human aging process and also act as predictor of health they added. If a person is a slow walker, they could be screened for diseases earlier, the team said.

The study was supported by grants from US National Institute on Aging, the UK Medical Research Council, the Jacobs Foundation, the New Zealand Health Research Council, the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Lundbeck Foundation, the US National Science Foundation and the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Related study

In a related study published in the BMJ, similar findings were noted. This study was titled, “Self-rated walking pace and all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality: individual participant pooled analysis of 50 225 walkers from 11 population British cohorts.”

The researchers wrote that pace of walking was associated with risk of “premature mortality.” They looked at 11 population-based baseline surveys in England and Scotland conducted between 1994 and 2008 and included over fifty thousand walkers in their analysis.

They noted that increasing the pace of walking could reduce the risk of deaths due to any cause and deaths due to cardiovascular disease. Those over 50 years of age and who were not meeting the criteria of regular physical activity, also showed benefits of increasing their walking pace, the team wrote.

The authors of the study concluded, “Walking pace could be emphasised in public health messages, especially in situations when increase in walking volume or frequency is less feasible.”

Journal reference:

Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Function With Gait Speed in Midlife,” Line Rasmussen, Avshalom Caspi, Anthony Ambler, et al. .JAMA Network Open, Oct. 11, 2019. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.13123, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2752818

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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