New Study: If You Notice This When You Walk, It Could Be a Sign of Dementia

Updated: Jun. 06, 2024

About 80% of study participants demonstrating this behavior also had abnormalities in their brain waves that researchers said could signal an early decline in brain function.

If you’ve known someone in your life who’s been affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia, you know what an incredibly painful disease it can be. According to the World Health Organization, dementia is one of the leading causes of disability and dependence among older adults. It can disrupt memory, cognitive function, mood, and lead to early death.

While you may know early signs of dementia such as forgetfulness, misplacing things, getting lost, or having trouble finding the right words, a new study suggests there could be an early symptom in your stride, too.

Get The Healthy by Reader’s Digest newlsetter

The June 2024 study published in the Public Library of Science (often referred to as PLOS ONE, a prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal) aimed to both “provide further support for the need to screen for early functional changes in older adults and to look for an early association between decline in mobility and cognition.”

It involved 95 adults in Havana, Cuba, each of whom was age 60 or older, who regularly got “mild” exercise and had no signs of cognitive impairment. An international team of researchers on aging assessed a gait speed test on participants after asking them to stand still behind a starting line and then walk at their usual pace for about six meters, with the first and second meter being considered the “acceleration” and “deceleration” zones and the middle four meters considered the “testing” zone. The researchers recorded how long it took the participants to walk through the testing zone, taking the average time of two trails per participant to determine their gait speed.

The researchers also measured the participants’ mental acuity using the mini-mental state examination (MMSE), a common screening tool for cognitive impairment in older adults, and administered an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the brain’s electrical activity.

The study’s findings revealed a significant association between gait speed decline and changes in brain function among older adults. Notably, 70% of the participants exhibited a gait speed slower than 0.8 meters per second, indicating a decline. Among these participants, 80% also had abnormal EEG frequency compositions, suggesting subclinical declines in brain function. While there was no significant difference in the MMSE scores between those with faster and slower gait speeds, all individuals with MMSE scores below 25 also had a gait speed under 0.8 meters per second and abnormal EEG findings.

Based on calculation, that 0.8 meters per second roughly equates to around two miles per hour.

These results surface the potential of gait speed as an early marker for cognitive and functional decline, highlighting that seemingly minor changes as we age can signal our changing health.