The hippocampus underlies the link between slowed walking and mental decline

June 28, 2017
David Berry participates in a study at the University of Pittsburgh that involves measuring his gait speed based on how long it takes him to walk a marked interval in a hallway. A different Pitt study used this test to find that slowing gait can be an early indication of cognitive decline linked to a shrinking hippocampus. Credit: Tim Betler/UPMC

The connection between slowed walking speed and declining mental acuity appears to arise in the right hippocampus, a finger-shaped region buried deep in the brain at ear-level, according to a 14-year study conducted by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

The finding, published today in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, indicates that older patients may benefit if their doctors regularly measure their walking speed and watch for changes over time, which could be early signs of and warrant referral to a specialist for diagnostic testing.

"Prevention and early treatment may hold the key to reducing the global burden of dementia, but the current screening approaches are too invasive and costly to be widely used," said lead author Andrea Rosso, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in Pitt Public Health's Department of Epidemiology. "Our study required only a stopwatch, tape and an 18-foot-long hallway, along with about five minutes of time once every year or so."

Rosso and her colleagues assessed 175 older adults ages 70 to 79 when they enrolled in the Health, Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC) study in Pittsburgh or Memphis, Tennessee. At the beginning of the study, the participants were all in good mental health and had normal . Multiple times over 14 years, the participants walked an 18-foot stretch of hallway at what they deemed a normal walking pace while a research assistant timed them. At the conclusion of the study, the participants were tested again for their and received scans.

A stopwatch, tape and an 18-foot-long hallway allow geriatricians to measure changes in a patient's walking speed over time. Slowing gait can be an early indication of cognitive decline linked to a shrinking hippocampus, according to a new University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health study. Credit: Tim Betler/UPMC

As previous studies have shown, slowing in the participants' , or walking speed, was associated with . However, Rosso's research determined that participants with a slowing gait and cognitive decline also experienced shrinkage of their right hippocampus, an area of the brain important to both memory and spatial orientation. It was the only area of the brain where the researchers found a shrinking volume to be related to both gait slowing and cognitive impairment.

Rosso's study also found gait slowing over an extended period of time to be a stronger predictor of cognitive decline than simply slowing at a single time point, which is what other, similar research evaluated. All the participants slowed over time, but those who slowed by 0.1 seconds more per year than their peers were 47 percent more likely to develop cognitive impairment. The finding held even when the researchers took into account slowing due to muscle weakness, knee pain and diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

"A fraction of a second is subtle, but over 14 years, or even less, you would notice," said Rosso, also an assistant professor in Pitt's Clinical and Translational Science Institute. "People should not just write off these changes in walking speed. It may not just be that grandma's getting slow—it could be an early indicator of something more serious."

The video will load shortly.
A stopwatch, tape and an 18-foot-long hallway allow geriatricians to measure changes in a patient's walking speed over time, as demonstrated in this video. Slowing gait can be an early indication of cognitive decline linked to a shrinking hippocampus, according to a new University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health study. Credit: Tim Betler/UPMC

While the team noted that slowing gait speed is not a sensitive enough measure to diagnose a cognitive issue, they argue that it should be included in regular geriatric evaluations to determine if there's a need for further testing. If cognitive decline can be detected early, there are therapies that can delay its onset, and the extra time could allow patients and families to plan for the eventual need for assisted care.

"Typically when physicians notice a slowing gait in their patients, they'll consider it a mechanical issue and refer the patient to physical therapy," said Rosso. "What we're finding is that physicians also should consider that there may be a brain pathology driving the slowing gait and refer the patient for a cognitive evaluation."

Explore further: Researchers suggest dual gait testing as early predictor of dementia

Related Stories

Researchers suggest dual gait testing as early predictor of dementia

May 23, 2017
In a new study, researchers at Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University are demonstrating that gait, or motion testing, while simultaneously performing a cognitively demanding task can be an effective predictor ...

Older adults who take 5+ medications walk slower than those who take fewer medications

June 27, 2017
"Polypharmacy" is the term used when someone takes many (usually five or more) different medications. Experts suggest that, for most older adults, taking that many medications may not be medically necessary. Taking multiple ...

Comparing gait parameters can predict decline in memory and thinking

November 28, 2016
Walking is a milestone in development for toddlers, but it's actually only one part of the complex cognitive task known as gait that includes everything from a person's stride length to the accompanying swing of each arm. ...

Gait and dementia link confirmed

October 22, 2014
Researchers at Newcastle University have found a definitive link between gait - the way someone walks - and early changes in cognitive function in people with Parkinson's disease.

Faltering steps may indicate oncoming dementia

July 16, 2012
(HealthDay) -- Three new studies suggest that a person's walking ability or type of gait may give hints about oncoming Alzheimer's disease.

Women's cognitive decline begins earlier than previously believed

January 20, 2017
UCLA researchers have found that mental sharpness in women begins to decline as early as their 50s. The study, which followed the same group of healthy women for 10 years after menopause, found that their average decline ...

Recommended for you

Researchers find monkey brain structure that decides if viewed objects are new or unidentified

August 18, 2017
A team of researchers working at the University of Tokyo School of Medicine has found what they believe is the part of the monkey brain that decides if something that is being viewed is recognizable. In their paper published ...

Artificial neural networks decode brain activity during performed and imagined movements

August 18, 2017
Artificial intelligence has far outpaced human intelligence in certain tasks. Several groups from the Freiburg excellence cluster BrainLinks-BrainTools led by neuroscientist private lecturer Dr. Tonio Ball are showing how ...

Study of nervous system cells can help to understand degenerative diseases

August 18, 2017
The results of a new study show that many of the genes expressed by microglia differ between humans and mice, which are frequently used as animal models in research on Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

How whip-like cell appendages promote bodily fluid flow

August 18, 2017
Researchers at Nagoya University have identified a molecule that enables cell appendages called cilia to beat in a coordinated way to drive the flow of fluid around the brain; this prevents the accumulation of this fluid, ...

Researchers make surprising discovery about how neurons talk to each other

August 17, 2017
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have uncovered the mechanism by which neurons keep up with the demands of repeatedly sending signals to other neurons. The new findings, made in fruit flies and mice, challenge ...

Neurons involved in learning, memory preservation less stable, more flexible than once thought

August 17, 2017
The human brain has a region of cells responsible for linking sensory cues to actions and behaviors and cataloging the link as a memory. Cells that form these links have been deemed highly stable and fixed.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.