Step Up for Dementia Research

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What Your Walk Says About You and Your Brain

Monday, February 17th, 2020

There are many different types of dementia, depending on the underlying cause. Each cause can damage the brain in different ways. New research out of the UK suggests that these differences may reveal themselves in the way that people walk[1].

Different Types of Dementia

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia. Other forms include Lewy body, vascular, and frontotemporal dementia. A person can have more than one type of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia often have similar symptoms and can be hard to tell apart. Yet, it is important people receive the correct diagnosis so that they can access the most effective support.

In the British study, researchers from Newcastle University analysed the walk of 110 older adults – 29 participants with intact cognition, 36 participants living with Alzheimer’s disease and 45 participants living with Lewy body dementia. Participants were asked to walk across a mat with thousands of sensors inside it. The sensors measured the speed and length of participants’ steps, the time it took to take a step, and how much these step times and lengths varied as they walked.  The sensors also compared how different or asymmetrical the left and right footsteps were to each other, and how wide or narrow the steps were.

Unique Walking Patterns

The results showed that people with both types of dementia could be distinguished from the healthy ageing group based on their walking pattern. They walked slower with shorter steps, were more variable and asymmetric, and spent longer with both feet on the ground. The study also found that compared to people with Alzheimer’s Disease, people with Lewy Body Dementia were uniquely more irregular in the timing and length of their strides. They were also more asymmetric when they moved, meaning that their left and right footsteps looked different to each other.  By analysing the information from this walking test, the research team could predict with 60% accuracy what type of dementia participants had.

Evidence suggests that the way we walk can change several years before dementia-related memory issues become apparent. Thus, an individual’s walking pattern could be used to reveal underlying problems before dementia symptoms become visible.

Best Guess Diagnosis

However, clinicians in the study only made best guesses regarding participants’ diagnoses based on clinical notes and cognitive assessments.  Only a few participants had brain scan data.  For this reason, the research team could not be definitively certain that the two dementia groupings were correct. Furthermore, there is always the issue that many people can be living with both Alzheimer’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia, and the only way to establish this with certainty is from a post-mortem – which in most instances is clearly unfeasible. The study also did not control for other conditions that can affect gait, such as the presence of arthritis or medication.

Our brain controls everything we do. Dementia and its associated loss of brain cells can affect many things in our everyday life – memory, thinking and as this study highlights, perhaps even walking.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31548122

 
The University of Sydney

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