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walking Alzheimer's

The Way You Walk May Help Doctors Diagnose Alzheimer’s, New Study Finds

By Lecia Bushak | September 26th, 2019

Though we may not realize it, we each have our own personal walking style and pace. Now researchers are finding that a person’s walking patterns could hold clues to whether they have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

A new study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia found that the way a person walks known as their gait could provide signs of neurological diseases, and even help doctors differentiate between various types of dementia.

Walking as a Clinical Tool for Diagnosing Alzheimer’s

There is currently no one way to diagnose dementia or Alzheimer’s when a person is still alive. It’s only through examining brain tissue after death that these diseases can be officially diagnosed.

Doctors do, however, use things like memory tests or MRIs to give them clues about a person’s state of cognitive health. These tests, often used in combination with one another, can help doctors sift through patients and decide who likely has dementia and will require treatment and care.

Now, testing the way a person walks may become yet another clinical tool to help hone in on a patient’s brain health.

What Your Walk Says About You

The new study focused on how people walk depending on whether they have Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia. Lewy body dementia causes a decline in memory and movement, and is the second most common type of progressive dementia next to Alzheimer’s, according to Mayo Clinic.

The researchers examined 110 people in the study: 29 older adults with healthy cognition, 36 people with Alzheimer’s disease and 45 people who had Lewy body dementia. At the Gait Lab of the Clinical Ageing Research Unit at Newcastle University, which studies mobility in older people, the participants completed a walking test along a walkway dotted with sensors. The walkway sensors measured their footsteps, speed and walking patterns.

The study results showed that participants with Lewy body dementia had a unique irregular gait. They were more likely to show changes in the length of their steps, as well as how long it took for them to take a step. People with Alzheimer’s disease, meanwhile, showed little to no changes in their walking patterns.

Simply using information from this walking test could accurately identify 60 percent of dementia types, the study concluded.

“The way we walk can reflect changes in thinking and memory that highlight problems in our brain, such as dementia,” Dr. Riona McArdle, a post-doctoral researcher at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “The results from this study are exciting as they suggest that walking could be a useful tool to add to the diagnostic toolbox for dementia.”

Walking as Early Diagnosis

Past research has looked into walking as a possible way to learn more about dementia types. One 2018 study found that a walking test, in which participants stepped backwards while multi-tasking, could help differentiate between certain types of brain conditions and dementia. The speed of a person’s walk can also predict dementia risk and hold information about the type of dementia they have.

McArdle added that identifying dementia through walking tests could also assist in boosting early diagnosis and intervention, which is often critical for a patient’s care and well-being.

“Correctly identifying what type of dementia someone has is important for clinicians and researchers as it allows patients to be given the most appropriate treatment for their needs as soon as possible,” McArdle said.

Dr. James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, called the research “pioneering for dementia.”

“It shows promise in helping to establish a novel approach to accurately diagnose different types of dementia,” Pickett said in the press release. “We look forward to seeing larger, longer studies to validate this approach and shed light on the relationship between a person’s gait and dementia diagnosis.”

The researchers’ next steps will involve more deeply examining walking patterns among people with dementia, and learning more about how measuring walking could improve current screening methods and diagnostic tests.

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