Among the elderly, slower walkers have slower brains

Older people who walk more slowly also perform less well on tests of mental performance – an association researchers say could prove useful for diagnosis and therapeutic interventions.

Having excluded participants with major neurological impairment or obvious cognitive difficulties, Kevin Duff and colleagues timed 675 older adults (average age 73.2 years) walking 25 feet in one direction and then back again. The participants also completed the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS), which tests a range of abilities including language, memory and attention.

The participants were divided into three groups based on their walking speed (50 feet in less than 14 seconds; between 14 to 17 seconds; more than 17 seconds) and it turned out they differed in their cognitive performance, with the slowest walkers performing least well cognitively.

Although it is not clear whether walking speed impacts cognition, if cognition affects walking speed, or indeed if some other factor is responsible for both slow locomotion and thinking, the researchers said their observation was nonetheless useful. “In less than 30 seconds, clinicians have the opportunity to indirectly assess cognition,” they said, adding that that their finding “might also guide interventions, as training in physically frail elders can improve walking speed and quality of life, and perhaps cognition.”

Duff, K., Mold, J.W. & Roberts, M.M. (2008). Walking speed and global cognition: Results from the OKLAHOMA Study. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 15, 31-39.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to earlier related Digest item.