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How fast are you aging? Midlife walking speed may show state of brain and body

Gait speed is fascinating because it offers so many clues about a person’s health, even at a younger age, experts say.
/ Source: TODAY

Slow walkers beware: A sluggish pace can already signal “accelerated aging” in adults in their 40s, while those who naturally walk more briskly may have younger brains and bodies, a new study has found.

It’s a health marker anyone can easily measure.

Doctors know a slow walk in elderly people can indicate poor health, but the new research, published last week in JAMA Network Open, examined whether 45-year-old slow walkers would also show signs of physical and mental decline.

Gait speed is fascinating because it offers so many clues about a person’s health, even at a younger age, said lead author Line Jee Hartmann Rasmussen, a postdoctoral fellow who researches aging at Duke University.

“The interesting thing is walking seems like such a simple thing to do, but it requires the function and interplay of a lot of different organ systems,” Rasmussen told TODAY.

“You need your lungs to function, you need your brain to be well-functioning, your nervous system, your muscles, your aerobic capacity. So that’s why it’s a good indicator of good health.”

She and her colleagues examined data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which followed more than 1,000 New Zealanders who were born between 1972 and 1973. Doctors had regularly assessed their health since they were 3 and when they reached 45 years of age, 904 of the participants had their gait speed measured.

The researchers then estimated how fast they were aging by looking at 19 health markers — including body mass index, blood pressure, fitness level, cholesterol level and other measures — plus the rate of facial aging.

They also considered scans of the participants’ brains and the results of their IQ, memory and learning tests.

The study then compared people with the slowest average walking speed — about 3.9 feet per second — to people with the highest average walking speed — about 5.7 feet per second.

It turned out slower gait speed at 45 was already associated with worse physical and cognitive function and an accelerated rate of aging.

Slower walkers showed “more rapid deterioration of multiple organ systems” and signs of “compromised structural brain integrity,” including smaller total brain volume, than their faster-walking peers. Their faces also seemed to age faster.

It’s pretty unconventional at the moment for people in midlife to undergo a gait speed test, but given the findings, it could be a step added to health check-ups, Rasmussen said.

“It might be very easy because it’s such a simple measure. It doesn’t cost anything, it’s not invasive — you don’t have to do a blood test or anything. It’s just how fast you walk,” she noted.

How to measure your own walking speed:

  • Take two pieces of tape and mark a certain distance, let’s say 6 meters, or almost 20 feet, which was the length used in this study.
  • Walk that distance at your usual pace while measuring how many seconds it takes you to do that with a stopwatch.
  • Divide the distance (20 feet in this example) by the time result to give you a certain amount of feet per second.

What it all means

In an accompanying commentary to the study, an expert suggested a walking speed of about 3.6 feet per second or slower should be a “cut point” that potentially means a person in his or her 40s may need interventions to prevent disability and dementia later in life.

“Gait speed is a simple, inexpensive indicator of well-being across adulthood. Let’s pay attention and use it,” wrote Dr. Stephanie Studenski, a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Just walking faster isn’t the solution for people who naturally walk slower, Rasmussen said. At the same time, they’re also not necessarily doomed to health problems just because they have more sluggish pace, she added.

It may just be a nudge to focus on better behaviors now, such as not smoking, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, to ensure good outcomes down the road.

“If you live a healthier life and have healthier organs and body functions, then you probably belong in the faster walking group,” Rasmussen said.