Different patterns in the way older adults walk could more accurately diagnose different types of dementia and identify Alzheimer disease, according to a study led by Canadian and London researchers from Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University. Their findings were published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We have longstanding evidence showing that cognitive problems, such as poor memory and executive dysfunction, can be predictors of dementia. Now, we’re seeing that motor performance, specifically the way you walk, can help diagnose different types of neurodegenerative conditions,” said Manuel Montero-Odasso, PhD, scientist at Lawson and Professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, in a press release.

The study compared step impairments across the cognitive spectrum, including people with subjective cognitive impairment, Parkinson disease, mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer disease, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia, as well as cognitively healthy controls.

Rhythm, pace, variability, and postural control were identified as the 4 step patterns. Only high step variability—or stride-to-stride fluctuations in distance and timing that happen when we walk—was associated with lower cognitive performance, identifying Alzheimer disease with 70% accuracy, according to the study.

“This is the first strong evidence showing that gait variability is an important marker for processes happening in areas of the brain that are linked to both cognitive impairment and motor control,” said study author Frederico Perruccini-Faria, research assistant at Lawson and postdoctoral associate at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, in a press release. “We’ve shown that high gait variability as a marker of this cognitive-cortical dysfunction can reliably identify Alzheimer’s disease compared to other neurodegenerative disorders.” 

The researchers found that when cognitive-cortical dysfunction is happening, the person’s ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time is impacted, such as talking while walking or chopping vegetables while talking with family members.

 “We see gait variability being similar to an arrhythmia. Health care providers could measure it with patients in the clinic, similar to how we assess heart rhythm with electrocardiograms,” Montero-Odasso said in a press release.

Differences in walking patterns could predict type of cognitive decline in older adults. Lawson Health Research Institute. https://www.lawsonresearch.ca/differences-walking-patterns-could-predict-type-cognitive-decline-older-adults. Published February 16, 2021. Accessed February 18, 2021.