Is Wobbling Worrisome? Gait Changes May Be an Early Sign of Dementia

By ABC News

Jul 15, 2012 11:30am

By DR. LAURIE HANDWERKER, ABC News Medical Unit

Slow on your feet? This could be the first sign of memory loss to come.

Three new studies presented Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, finds that changes in walking patterns of the elderly are closely linked to memory loss and may actually be an early clue to dementia.

One group of researchers studied the strides of a group of elderly patients at Basel Mobility Center in Switzerland.  The study, conducted by lead researcher Dr. Stephanie Bridenbaugh, found that those participants with declines in cognition tended to walk more slowly than their memory-savvy counterparts, particularly when asked to perform a simple task — such as counting backward — while walking.

“Gait analysis can simply, quickly and objectively measure walking,” Bridenbaugh commented in a news release. “When problems emerge, this may provide early detection of fall risk and the earliest stages of cognitive impairment in older adults.”

Other doctors not directly involved with the research agreed that it can be difficult for older patients to perform tasks while walking.

“Someone with mild troubles trying to remember things, they might not be focused as much on walking,” said Dr. William Hu, assistant professor of neurology at Emory University. “I hear this all the time from patients: ‘I was rushing to go to the grocery store, and I left my purse at home.’ Asking a person to do another thing while walking really tests their cognitive reserve.”

Another set of researchers at the Mayo Clinic found similar results. The scientists looked at the changes in the pace and the stride of their patients over the span of 15 months. They found that these changes in walking were directly correlated to their memory loss.

Heather Snyder, senior associate director of the Alzheimer’s Association, reports that these studies “continue to build the evidence that there is a connection between gait and cognition.”

“Gait testing is an inexpensive way for us to observe potential changes,” Snyder said. “It can be done by any physician in their office, as a way to identify people that may need further evaluation.”

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