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Altered Walking May Be First Sign of Dementia

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Once considered a normal aspect of the aging process, three recent studies have concluded that a slow or irregular gait could be an early sign of dementia. Data was compiled from 4,000 participants, measuring their pace, rhythm and size of step. The results, presented recently at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, indicate that each of these parameters changes when a person develops a neurological disorder.
 
William Thies, chief medical officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, thinks that this new information will provide physicians with the tools necessary to make an early evaluation of those patients who require further examination. Older adults suffering from dementia are more likely to have an injurious fall, so detecting symptoms early on can help prevent such incidents from occurring.
 
One of the studies found that patients with Alzheimer’s walked more slowly and had a less regular step pattern as they continued to experience mental decline.  Those with a pre-Alzheimer’s condition called mild cognitive impairment also had disrupted gaits and walked much differently than their healthy peers.
 
Another study analyzing a younger group of subjects found that a person’s step rhythm was correlated to his or her information processing speed.  While memory was not found to be linked to any aspect of walking, executive function, the ability to control and regulate behavior, was found to vary with stride length.
 
According to Mohammed Ikram, researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, future studies should focus on the link between walking and dementia. All older adults begin to walk differently as they age, so it is important for physicians to understand the underlying causes of these changes.
 
While primary care physicians will not have access to the same equipment used to analyze the subjects in the studies, they can perform simple tests, such as multitasking exercises, to make preliminary assessments of their patients. It is important that the medical community and the general public be aware of these potential warning signs so that doctors and patients can work together to combat any problems sooner rather than later.

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