Slower walkers have older brains

Retrospective analysis shows the slower walkers could have been identified at age 3.


Gait speed is frequently used in geriatric settings as a quick, simple, and reliable way of estimating older patients’ functional capacity. It is increasingly recognized that gait is associated with not only musculoskeletal mechanisms but also with the central nervous system.

The ability to walk and gait speed depend on the function and interplay of the musculoskeletal, visual, central nervous, and peripheral nervous systems, as well as aerobic capacity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and energy production and delivery. A new study has suggested that slower walking speeds is a sign of accelerating age.

Lead researcher Line J.H. Rasmussen, a post-doctoral researcher in the Duke University department of psychology & neuroscience 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.”

Equally striking, neurocognitive testing that these individuals took as children could predict who might turn into the more slow walkers. At age 3, their scores on IQ, understanding language, frustration tolerance, motor skills, and emotional control anticipated their walking speed at age 45.

Senior author Terrie E. Moffitt, the Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor of Psychology at Duke University said, “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.”

Scientists gathered the data from a long-term study of nearly 1,000 people who were born during a single year in Dunedin, New Zealand. The 904 research participants in the current study have been tested, quizzed and measured their entire lives, most recently from April 2017 to April 2019 at age 45.

MRI scans of the participant’s brain during the last assessment showed that slower walkers tended to have lower total brain volume, lower mean cortical thickness, less brain surface area and higher incidence of white matter “hyperintensities,” small lesions associated with small vessel disease of the brain.

What’s new in this study is the relative youth of these study subjects and the ability to see how walking speed matches up with health measures the study has collected during their lives.

Lead researcher Line J.H. Rasmussen, a post-doctoral researcher in the Duke University department of psychology & neuroscience said, “It’s a shame we don’t have gait speed and brain imaging for them as children.”

“Some of the differences in health and cognition may be tied to lifestyle choices these individuals have made. But the study also suggests that there are already signs in the early life of who would become the slowest walkers. We may have a chance here to see who’s going to do better health-wise in later life.”

This research was supported by grants the US National Institute on Aging (AG032282, AG049789, AG028716), the UK Medical Research Council (MR/P005918/1), the Jacobs Foundation, the New Zealand Health Research Council (16-604), the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Lundbeck Foundation (R288-2018-380), the US National Science Foundation (NSF DGE-1644868), the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (T32-HD007376).

The study appears Oct. 11 in JAMA Network Open.