Walking patterns of elderly patients can be used to diagnose dementia

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  • Abnormal walking patterns have long been associated with cognitive disorders
  • However, this phenomenon has never properly been investigated as a diagnostic tool
  • Now, a new study shows that walking patterns can be used to identify types of dementia

Different patterns in the way elderly people walk can be used to predict cognitive decline, according to a study recently published in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association. The group of Canadian researchers are among the first to use walking patterns as a means to diagnose dementia and especially detect Alzheimer’s disease. 

Gait impairment and cognitive decline

According to the researchers, “gait impairment [when a person walks abnormally] is common in neurodegenerative disorders”, but the level of impairment has never been quantitively compared across the spectrum of dementias.

For the purpose of their study, the researchers compared gait impairments in 500 elderly adults who were diagnosed with different types of dementia, including subjective cognitive impairment, Parkinson's disease, mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia.

Cognitively healthy individuals were also included in the study and acted as controls. “We have longstanding evidence showing that cognitive problems, such as poor memory and executive dysfunction, can be predictors of dementia.

"Now we're seeing that motor performance, specifically the way you walk, can help diagnose different types of neurodegenerative conditions,” said corresponding author, Dr Manuel Montero-Odasso.

Pinpointing Alzheimer’s

Four independent aspects of walking were identified for comparison, namely rhythm, pace, variability, and postural control. Across these four domains, a high gait variability (i.e., the stride-to-stride fluctuations in walking) was associated with lower cognitive performance, and this most accurately separated Alzheimer’s disease from other cognitive conditions.

"This is the first strong evidence showing that gait variability is an important marker for processes happening in areas of the brain that are linked to both cognitive impairment and motor control,” first author, Dr Frederico Perruccini-Faria, noted. 

The scientists behind the study also noted that using gait variability as a marker for cognitive decline is beneficial for clinicians as they can conduct gait assessments on patients by using wearable technology. 

“Health care providers could measure it with patients in the clinic, similar to how we assess heart rhythm with electrocardiograms,” Dr Montero-Odasso stated.

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