Middle-aged adults who walk slowly ‘likely to have aged prematurely’

Middle-aged adults who walk slowly are likely to have brains and bodies that have aged prematurely, researchers revealed today.

They found that the walking speed of 45-year-olds was associated with physical and biological indicators of “accelerated aging”.

Walking speed was already a well-known indicator of functional decline and mortality in the elderly but this is the first study to link it with midlife health.

Senior author Professor Terrie Moffitt, of King’s College London, said: “Doctors know that slow walkers in their 70s and 80s tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age.

“But this study covered the period from the pre-school years to midlife, and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age.”

The study of 45-year-olds found those who had the fastest walking speeds – without running – were in the best health. Those who registered the slowest speeds tended to have lower total brain volume and lower average cortical thickness, an indicator of neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders.

MRI brain scans also revealed slower walkers had less brain surface area and higher incidence of white matter “hyperintensities”, small lesions associated with cognitive decline and dementia.

 Their lungs, teeth and immune systems also tended to be in worse condition, according to the study in Jama Network Open. Slower walkers also looked older to a panel of eight screeners who assessed each participant’s “facial age” from a photograph. 

The data comes from a five-decade study of about 1,000 people born in 1972 or 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. 

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The 904 research participants in the latest study have been tested, quizzed and measured their entire lives, mostly recently from April 2017 to April 2019 at age 45. 

The latest research also revealed that neurocognitive tests they took at the age of three helped to predict who would become the slower walkers. 

Their childhood scores on IQ, understanding language, frustration tolerance, motor skills and emotional control were linked with their walking speed, or “gait speed” at 45. 

Lead researcher Line Rasmussen, of Duke University, in North Carolina, said: “The thing that’s really striking is that this is in 45-year-old people, not the geriatric patients who are usually assessed with such measures.”

The researchers say that “lifestyle choices” may also have affected the differences seen in health and cognition in midlife. 

MRI scans were not invented until the late 1970s and were not performed on children until some years later, meaning the researchers are unable to compare adult and child brain scans.

Dr Rasmussen said: “It’s a shame we don’t have gait speed and brain imaging for them as children. We may have a chance here to see who’s going to do better health-wise in later life.”

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