Alzheimer's, dementia, and memory loss could be the end result when people are observed walking differently or wobbling, according to new studies. Catching the cognitive decline early and testing patients could lead to solutions- one of which may be strength training.
At the Alzheimer's Association international Conference in Vancouver, Canada Sunday, researchers demonstrated "robust" evidence linking a person's gait to their cognitive ability. They found that deterioration in gait- sometimes shortening just 1.7 cm in stride- showed a significantly increased chance of falling, which is another sign of Alzheimer's.
"Walking and movements require a perfect and simultaneous integration of multiple areas of the brain," Rodolfo Savica, an author of a Mayo Clinic study in Rochester, Minn., told USA Today. "These changes support a possible role of gait changes as an early predictor of cognitive impairment."
Savica's study gad 1,341 participants, and researchers were looking for changes in stride length, cadence, and velocity. Similarly, another study of 1,153 at risk for Alzheimer's because of the their age was conducted at the Basel Mobility Center in Switzerland. They found that gait became "slower and more variable as cognition decline progressed"- these numbers get worse when memory was tested as well.
"Someone with mild troubles trying to remember things, they might not be focused as much on walking," Dr. William Hu, assistant professor of neurology at Emory University, told ABC News. While not directly involved with the study, he said that "asking a person to do another thing while walking really tests their cognitive reserve."
The Basel study showed that the "dual-task" aspect of walking and remembering had average variability shoot up 16 and 19 percent for patients with moderate to severe Alzeheimer's. It could be the reason why some patients who are tested seem to do fine in a doctor's office, but their style of walking is altered at home.
One possible treatment option was strength training. Several studies demonstrated at the Alzheimer's Conference that weight lifting, walking, or balance and tone exercise benefit patients, with the most benefit coming from the weight lifting.
"We actually imaged their brains, using functional MRIs- and these people showed better brain function," Dr. Teresea Liu Ambrose, director of the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience lab at the University of British Colombia, told CNN. Her study measured 86 women, but she stressed the importance of early detection for the treatment to be effective.
"You would think if you had more impairment, you would have more improvement, but this says the opposite," she explained. "This highlights that resistance training improves cognition, but you really have to consider a person's cognitive abilities."