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Walking slowly at age 45 is a sign of accelerated aging, study finds

Walking more slowly at age 45 is associated with accelerated aging, which could give doctors an early warning signal of aging-related problems ahead, according to a new study led by researchers from Duke University.
Walking more slowly at age 45 is associated with accelerated aging, which could give doctors an early warning signal of aging-related problems ahead, according to a new study led by researchers from Duke University.JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Walking more slowly at age 45 is associated with accelerated aging, which could give doctors an early warning signal of aging-related problems ahead, according to a new study led by researchers from Duke University.

The slower walkers were shown to have accelerated aging on a 19-measure scale created by researchers. The research was published last week in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“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,” lead researcher Line J.H. Rasmussen, a post-doctoral researcher in the Duke University department of psychology & neuroscience, said in a statement from the university.

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Gait speed is already often used in geriatric care settings as a reliable, simple, and quick way of estimating older patients’ functional capacity, researchers said. But few studies have looked at gait in healthy middle-aged people.

The researchers also found that neurocognitive tests taken by the nearly 1,000 study subjects in Dunedin, New Zealand, decades ago as children could predict who would become slower walkers. The researchers said further study was needed to “unpack” why the two were connected.

“Doctors know that slow walkers in their seventies and eighties tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age,” senior author Terrie E. Moffitt, a professor at Duke and at King’s College London, said in the statement. “But this study covered the period from the preschool years to midlife, and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age.”

In a commentary published with the study, Dr. Stephanie Studenski of the University of Pittsburgh, said, “Gait speed appears to be a valuable signal of potential health concerns in midlife adults. . . . Could insurers and practitioners include gait speed and these indicators in their preventive health plans starting much earlier, perhaps even in young adults? Certainly, as the authors suggest, midlife adults with slow gait speed are a potential target for interventions to prevent late-life disability and dementia.”

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Studenski suggested that doctors screen the younger patients to see if their usual walking speed was approximately 1.1 meters per second, or 2.46 miles per hour.

“Gait speed is a simple, inexpensive indicator of well-being across adulthood. Let’s pay attention and use it,” Studenski wrote.

Rasmussen told NBC’s “Today” show that simply walking faster isn’t the solution for people’s problems if they are slow walkers, but they can take steps to improve their health by improving their behaviors now, for example, by not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.

The study also suggested that gait speed could be a useful tool for researchers going forward as they conduct anti-aging experiments aimed at developing treatments that prevent aging problems, rather than treat them after they’ve already happened.

“It is increasingly recognized that it might be easier to prevent aging-associated damage than to reverse it, suggesting that the effect of interventions to slow aging may work better if they are applied while people are still young and free of disease and disability,” researchers said.

“This necessitates a shift toward enrolling younger participants in antiaging trials, and with this shift, valid measures are required to identify risk groups that need intervention, and to track the course of outcome before the manifestation of age-related diseases. Gait speed could be used as one such measure: the gait speed test is cheap, safe, easy to test repeatedly, and feasible to use among people in their 40s,” researchers said.

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