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Brisk walking protects against dementia

People in their seventies who are worried about developing dementia can improve their chances by walking regularly. We base this statement on a study done by French gerontologists at Toulouse University. According to their research, the speed at which the over seventies can walk predicts the likelihood of their developing dementia.

A handful of recent studies suggest that the number of metres per second elderly people can cover when on a short walk is a predictor of how likely they are to develop dementia and other aging-related diseases. [J Nutr Health Aging. 2009 Dec; 13(10): 881-9.] [JAMA. 2011 Jan 5; 305(1): 50-8.] The slower elderly people walk, the more sombre their prospects.

The researchers were interested to find out whether these studies were reporting an apparent relationship rather than a real one. Might it be that elderly people are more capable of walking faster if they have more muscle mass and less fat mass? And is it this healthy body composition [low fat, more muscle] that protects against dementia rather than the walking itself, they reasoned.

Brisk walking protects against dementia
In their article, published recently in The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, the researchers describe an epidemiological study involving about 650 mentally fit women over the age of 75. The researchers determined the speed at which the women walked a short distance, and then assessed the subjects' mental condition after a period of seven years.

The researchers divided the women into four groups, quartiles, according to their walking speed. The women in the first quartile covered more than 92 cm/sec, those in the second quartile 92-80 cm/sec, in the third quartile 80-67 cm/sec and in the fourth quartile less than 67 cm/sec.

Brisk walking protects against dementia

The women in the fourth quartile, who walked slowest, were twice as likely to develop dementia as the women in the first quartile. The researchers also took the women's body composition into account. Healthy body composition probably did reduce the chance of dementia, but the effect was not statistically significant. In the table below the significant relationships are shown in bold. TLM = Total Lean Mass; TFM = Total Fat Mass.

So it really is the speed of walking that protects elderly people from dementia. Which of course raises the question: can old people protect themselves against dementia by learning to walk faster? By becoming fitter?

The answer to this question is probably 'yes'. More on this soon.

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2012 Apr;67(4):425-32.

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