Betty Pilgrim participated in a study examining the link between walking style and cognitive function. (ABC News: Rebecca Hewett)
Betty Pilgrim is walking down a special mat with electronic sensors underneath it, so researchers can gather data on how quickly she walks, and how one step compares to the next.
- The study monitored the walking style and brain health of 400 Tasmanians aged 60 to 85
- It found a relationship between speed and walking patterns and decline in memory
- Some of the researchers have started a new study, which uses an app to test whether walking and thinking can be improved with exercise
But it’s the 71 year old’s brain — not her legs — that is being tested.
An Australian study has found a link between a person’s walking style and their chance of getting dementia.
Ms Pilgrim’s mother had dementia. She said that has motivated her to know as much as she can about the disease — and what she can do to reduce her chances of getting it.
“I’m not very good with my balance. Sometimes when I stand still I tend to topple, so I would be interested in trying to improve that,” Ms Pilgrim said.
“With my mum, after awhile she didn’t walk at all. She spent all her time sitting.”
Over seven years, the Tasmanian study of cognition and gait monitored the walking style of 400 Tasmanians aged 60 to 85 and their brain health using cognitive tests and brain scans.
“What we found was that the variation from step-to-step in how people walk can be an indicator of their cognitive function, like memory,” Professor Velandai Srikanth, from Monash University in Victoria, said.
“Walking itself is an indicator of overall health,” he said.
“Walking is a fairly complex function which we take for granted, but the brain has to bring together lots of resources to make it work.
“If something is not quite right with your brain health, then it can present as difficulties with walking.”
Ms Pilgrim’s tests show she has a quick, regular walking pace.
But then, according to the experts she has been doing all the right things.
Betty Pilgrim said she joined she study because her mother had dementia. (ABC News: Rebecca Hewett)
The 71-year-old is enrolled in an online law degree and just got back from two months in Europe.
“I was on my own and I was backpacking so you can imagine in Europe what it’s like, in train stations up and down stairs,” she said.
“I walked a lot during the day and sometimes into the evening. That was quite a bit of exercise. I’ll just have to try and keep it up now I’m back.”
Slower speeds, linked to memory decline
The study began in 2005 and involved researchers from Monash, the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania and the Neura research unit at the University of New South Wales.
Associate Professor Michele Callisaya, from the Menzies Institute and the University of Tasmania, said the damage showing up in MRIs was mirrored in peoples’ walking styles.
“We found that people who walked slower with smaller steps did have more changes in the MRI on their brain so potentially we are seeing the early indicators of ageing and clinical disease, ” Professor Callisaya said.
“We found that a walking speed of about 1 metre per second was linked with a decline in memory and we also found that variability of walking patterns was also associated with a decline in memory.”
The Tasmanians involved in the walking study were aged 60 to 85, but Professor Callisaya said testing walking speeds could be helpful even earlier than that — especially for women.
“We think that it’s a really early marker so you would potentially be seeing it certainly from aged 60, but is also some evidence that particularly in women, walking speed starts to decline in their 50s,” she said.
Can exercise improve walking and thinking?
Professor Callisaya and colleagues from Menzies and Neura have started a new study, which will use an app to test whether walking and thinking can be improved with exercise.
“We really want to see if we can improve people’s walking ability and their ability to think on their feet,” she said.
“The app has a range of balance exercises, combined with thinking exercises, to really try and help people do these exercises in their home.
“We want to motivate them to do that, to see if we can improve mobility, improve cognitive function and reduce falls.”
Those who sign up to the study will use the app for six months and then have their walking reassessed.
Ms Pilgrim said it’s something she’d be keen to try.
“I spent a lot of time on my computer when I was away, reading books and checking my messages, so that’s something I would quite enjoy,” she said.