Of all the hallmarks and physical manifestations of aging, the speed at which we walk is one that we primarily think about as slow walking turns into needing assistance to get around. But according recent research, the speed of our gait is an indicator of how a person is aging as young as age 45.
Walking speed is a well documented measure of aging in older populations. A 2011 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) first established the link after researchers looked at the gait speed of 34,485 older adults living in senior communities. Their walking ability was measured over several years with researchers concluding that survival was associated with gait speed across all populations. It is a clear sign of health status and, as the study concluded, should be considered as a clinical indicator for life expectancy.
New research published in JAMA details a five-decade long study looking at middle aged participants in New Zealand. The study looked at physical and biological indicators of accelerated aging such as reduced brain volume and cortical thickness and found that they were associated with slow walking speeds in middle age. These factors can lead to neurodegenerative conditions and cognitive decline as we age.
Beyond slow gait being associated with poor health, it’s these biological signs of accelerated aging that lead to brain atrophy, deterioration of organ systems and facial aging. Put simply, those who walk slower age faster.
Walking and the Brain
Perhaps the most interesting connection for aging researchers is that between walking speed and neurological health. From childhood to middle age, poor cognitive function and decline was closely related to walking speed.
MRIs in the study outlined in JAMA showed that when it came to the brain, slower walking participants had brain biomarkers in middle age that more closely resembled that of older adults. One aspect worth noting from the MRIs were areas where white matter formed what is referred to as areas of hyperintensity. This is usually an indication of vascular disease, which increases the risk of strokes or dementia.
Slower walkers also performed more poorly than fast walkers on cognitive function tests such as examinations of memory, reasoning and processing speed. Interestingly, researchers also found that gait speed in middle age may be a historical reference for brain health throughout the person’s lifespan, with slow walkers performing more poorly on cognitive tests at an early age.
Can You Walk Faster for Better Brain Health?
The research echoes another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which revealed that fast walkers have a 20% lower mortality rate than those with a slow gait as well as a similar reduction in the risk of dying from a cardiovascular problem.
While the British study doesn’t definitively promise that walking fast will improve mortality and increase life span, adding to the intensity of any physical activity such as walking will likely have health benefits that support aging gracefully, both physically and neurologically.