As of 2015, 46.8 million people were diagnosed with dementia across the globe and this number continues to rise. Currently, there is no cure for dementia and treatment options are limited, so identifying risk factors for the condition is highly important. If risk factors can be identified, the potential for preventing the disease becomes higher.
In recent years, research has turned to examine the relationship between physical attributes and activities and cognitive function, which can be an indicator of dementia risk.
A new longitudinal study examined walking speed, cognitive function, and the risk of dementia in the elderly population in England. The goal of the study was to determine how these three factors interact with each other in the aging population. Walking speed is one of the easier traits to measure compared to others like step distance. Slow walking speed has previously been related to negative outcomes in the older population. Studies have shown that slow walking speed can be a predictor for lower cognitive function, but the lower cognitive function is not a predictor of walking speed.
The current study collected data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. The participants included were 50 years of age or older and lived in communities. Data was collected between 2002 and 2015, with a follow up every two years.
Walking speed was measured by having participants walk a distance of eight meters, starting on even ground. The amount of time taken to walk the distance was recorded. The measurement of walking speed was used by the researchers as a predictor for dementia. Cognitive function was measured by a general practitioner or by a caretaker.
The study population included 3,932 participants. The results showed that participants with a slower walking speed were more likely to develop dementia. The researchers also found that the participants who had the greatest decline in walking speed over the course of the study were also those at a greater risk of developing dementia.
These results also applied to the cognitive function of the participants. Those with lower cognitive function showed higher risk of dementia and those with the largest decrease in cognitive function over the course of the study showed an increased risk for developing dementia.
The researchers did not find that a lower walking speed in association with lower cognitive function increased the risk of dementia any more than one or the other did individually. There was evidence of a link between the two, however. The participants with faster walking speeds demonstrated less cognitive decline and those with the slowest walking speeds represented the participants with the most advanced cases of dementia and the lowest cognitive function.
It is still unclear whether this relationship between walking speed and cognitive function is significant only at the level where cognitive dysfunction becomes a problem or if the same associated is found in cognitively healthy populations. Further research will be needed to explore these implications fully.
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