Frequent lapses in memory and judgment are not always the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. New research suggests problems in the way older people walk may provide the earliest reliable clues that they may be suffering from advance stages of dementia.
A new analysis of studies, led by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Montefiore Medical Center, has found that seniors whose walking pace begins to slow noticeably and who also have cognitive impairments are more than twice as likely to develop dementia within 12 years.
In an exclusive interview on Newsmax TV’s Meet the Doctors program, lead researcher Joe Verghese , M.D., says that combination of symptoms may indicate how well seniors’ brains are aging and functioning, and could provide a simple new way for doctors to identify seniors at risk for Alzheimer’s.
That, in turn, could speed treatment, which is most effective in combatting and slowing the advance of dementia when begun early.
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“Many years ago when I was a researcher working in an aging study I examined hundreds of older people and one of the thing I noticed is that all the people were walking slowly. When I looked that their cognitive tests [and] memory tests, I noticed that they were abnormal too,” says Dr. Verghese, who heads up the Center for the Aging Brain and the Department of Geriatrics at Einstein’s Montefiore Headache Center in New York.
“So this gave me an idea that maybe we could use a simple sign, such as walking, [to] predict who would be at risk for dementia. Walking is quite a complex activity so while clearly most people slow down when they age due to problems like arthritis you need your brain to function well in order to walk well … And that slowing of walking that occurs very early might be an early sign of dementias like Alzheimer’s.”
The findings, published in Neurology, a journal of the American Academy of Neurology, are among the latest to develop an easy, affordable way to diagnose dementia, which is best treated when therapy begins early. Other research has identified connections between dementia and sleep disorders, changes in vision and sense of smell, and abnormal proteins — known as amyloid and tau — in the brain.
Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia. More than 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with it, and that figure is expected to double by 2050 as the U.S. population ages.
“One of the biggest challenges facing us now is that there’s a growing aging population and there are many people at risk for developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” says Dr. Verghese.
“And one of the challenges is to find ways to diagnose these people as early as possible before they actually meet criteria for Alzheimer’s so that you can institute preventive measures.
”One of the problems with the current diagnostic methods [is] they aren’t easily accessible. They require either detailed cognitive testing or they you need to do neuro-imaging studies.”
He explains that walking “is quite a complex activity” that requires a well-functioning brain.
“So that slowing of walking that occurs very early might be an early sign of dementias like Alzheimer’s,” he says. “Slow gait [can be] caused by poor circulation to the brain [which may be] the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
He also notes there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but a number of medications that help with the symptoms.
“The reassuring part is that if I can identify somebody early I could actually do something to alter the course of the disease,” he says. “If you think either you or one of your loved one is walking slow and also you’re noticing memory complaints or difficulty functioning in daily life, this is someone you should bring to the attention of your physician and get them checked out.”
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